Refugees in Danger

The prospects are dark for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Ever more stringent security measures in the wake of terrorist attacks have led to higher and higher barriers in countries that once welcomed them. These less-than-welcoming countries, moreover, are among the wealthiest: the United States and Canada, European nations and Australia.



The U.S. Committee for Refugees, a nongovernmental advocacy group, reported in its recently released World Refugee Survey that only 27,000 refugees were admitted here in 2002—the lowest number in three decades, and a sharp drop from the 70,000 admitted the year before. Forty thousand people already approved have been kept waiting for final clearance. For many refugees, long months of waiting have stretched into years. As a result, new generations are being born in desolate refugee camps throughout the world, where they are simply warehoused.

Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, points out in the survey that a number of governments have not only taken additional steps to exclude refugees and asylum seekers; they have increasingly held them behind bars in countries where they had hoped to find safety and acceptance. This harsh treatment has often been accompanied by threats of expulsion back to the very states where they were threatened with persecution. Forcible repatriation of this kind runs counter to internationally recognized human rights principles. China, for example, has forcibly repatriated tens of thousands of North Koreans, who because of their unauthorized departure from North Korea, face imprisonment and even execution upon their return.

The United States itself has forcibly repatriated some 1,500 Haitians, and has imprisoned many others in detention facilities in Florida. Bishop Thomas Wenski, now of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, released a statement last May in which he pointed out that detention of this kind “sets a dangerous precedent for detaining asylum seekers for the purpose of deterring future migrations of those fleeing persecution.”

Besides those who have managed to flee their countries of origin in the frequently vain search for safety elsewhere, an even greater number of men, women and children remain trapped within their own borders as internally displaced persons. They not only lack the protections accorded refugees under international law, they often find themselves in danger of attack by their own governments. Wracked by the country’s 20-year civil war, civilian populations in southern Sudan have endured assaults by the government in the northern part of the country. Sudan now has the highest number of I.D.P.’s in the world. Colombia is a close second, with a million and a half people uprooted from their homes by the conflicts there. Three thousand Colombians who tried to flee from Tachira State into Venezuela in February 2002 were turned back at the border by Venezuelan authorities. This forced them to return to the very place where their lives were threatened. In addition, a number of governments have manipulated the terrorist threat to further their own agendas, especially to justify cracking down on dissenting groups. Russian crackdowns in Chechnya serve as a case in point, as well as China’s arrests of Tibetans.

Not all the news is bad. The defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has made it possible for a majority of the two million refugees to return to their homes last year. But as the survey tersely notes, “the international community failed to deliver adequate security and reconstruction assistance—two essentials for full and sustainable repatriation.” Consequently, many returnees were obliged to find shelter in camps for displaced persons—hardly the equivalent of home. Among countries that provide refugee assistance through the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and other groups, most of the wealthy G-7 countries stand out for being among the least generous. The richest of all, the United States, ranks 10th. Ironically, the less developed nations have been the most welcoming. Though it receives little international assistance, Iran—currently a subject of suspicion in the administration’s eyes—cares for half the world’s refugees, most of whom come from the Middle East.

Advocates for refugees and asylum seekers support efforts to exclude terrorists, but at the same time they emphasize the need for greater balance between security concerns and human rights principles. As Mr. Lubbers observes, the fight against terror, for all its legitimacy, nevertheless has to “preserve the fundamental rights and democratic institutions that terrorists seek to undermine.” Here and in other countries that have raised fortress-like barriers against those fleeing persecution, these rights and institutions are now in danger.

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