25 June 2005

Why we need World Refugee Day

By Marguerite Finn

"On World Refugee Day we honour the indomitable spirit and courage of the world's millions of refugees. Many endure enormous suffering without losing hope and find the strength to overcome despair and start a new life against seemingly overwhelming odds"

(Kofi Annan - UN Secretary General - 20 June 2005 )

In 2000, the United Nations passed a resolution designating 20 June as World Refugee Day, to encourage everyone to pause and reflect on the 50 million people uprooted and driven from their homes since 1945.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 - its primary purpose to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. They rely on the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. This key legal document defines who are refugees, their rights and the legal obligations of states - and that is where things start to get seriously complicated.

The UN defines refugees as "persons who are outside their country and can not return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group".

Things have moved on since then. Today, the majority of those forced to flee their homes do so because of internal civil wars and environmental disasters - making them "Internally Displaced People". The UN classifies them as "People of Concern" rather than "refugees" and at the end of 2004 they numbered 19.2 million.

Statistically, the global refugee population has fallen by 24% over a four-year period; yet while on paper the number of refugees is decreasing, there has been an increase in the numbers of 'People of Concern'. In addition, some 4 million Palestinian refugees - the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) - are not included in the figures.

Where are these 'people of concern'? A glance at the daily UN News Bulletins confirms that they are everywhere - across all five continents. Statistic-lovers can find out about global refugee trends from UNHCR website. Thinking about the human tide of displaced people sloshing constantly back and forth across the face of the earth reminds me of a flight of starlings - the way they curve and flow and turn as one, in mid-flight.

There are many reasons why refugees flee from places they would rather not leave. Take the example of Svetlana the Russian maternity nurse in Tajikistan where civil war raged between 'Pamir Tajiks'and 'Kulyab Tajiks', where neighbour killed neighbour and where Russians born and bred in Tajikistan were no longer welcome. For Svetlana the breaking point came as she delivered a baby in the local hospital.

Just as the child was born, armed men burst into the ward demanding drugs and alcohol. On seeing the baby they asked whether it was "Pamir or Kulyab". Not waiting for an answer from the terrified mother and nurse, they grabbed the infant and threw it out of the window. It never even had a name. Svetlana and her family fled. They went to Chernobyl. The settled in the ghost town and were left in peace - with only the radiation for company. As Svetlana's mother said: "We came to Chernobyl because no one's going to chase us out of here. No one will kick us off this land". The family, having lost their homeland, preferred peace and possible cancer from irradiated soil - to the irrationality and hell of civil war.

In our quest for 'progress' and economic growth, we inflict misery on millions of our fellow human beings

The news is not all bad. In 2004 alone some 30,000 refugees were resettled with UNHCR assistance and 1.5 million were repatriated voluntarily to their country of origin. In May 2005, refugees from Myanmar were settled successfully in Sheffield as part of a UK-UNHCR resettlement initiative. British people are encouraged to participate in the joint UK/UN Gateway Scheme, but this week Amnesty International (UK) has challenged our Government's increasing use of Immigration Act powers to detain asylum seekers at some point during the asylum process. They expressed concern at the lack of statistics on the numbers held in detention and the length of time they are detained.

It is only through increasing public awareness that we can learn to welcome asylum seekers and the variety of ways by which they enrich our society. That is why we need to set aside at least one day in the year to consider the victims of persecution, war and environmental degredation - and resolve to do something positive about it.

Further information is available from NEAD, 38, Exchange Street Norwich (01603-610993), http://www.nead.org.uk/ or Refugee Council: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/.