Refugees: Darfur and Beyond

The disaster unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan shines a spotlight once again on the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons. The Sudanese government has stood by as Arab Janjaweed militias engaged in the systematic destruction of Darfurian villages and water sources. Thirty thousand people have been killed, and rape has been widespread. A hundred and fifty thousand have fled westward to refugee camps in Chad, and one million are internally displaced.

But the current humanitarian disaster in Sudan is just the most recent form of war-driven suffering in that country. The nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees points out in its recently released 2004 World Refugee Survey that 800,000 people have been forced from their homes during Sudan’s two-decades-long civil war. How long the victims of the current violence will remain in refugee camps is unknown. It could be years. Bill Frelick, director of refugee programs for Amnesty International USA, points out that the camps are in a remote desert area, hard to reach with supplies and difficult to protect.


Long confinement in refugee camps has increasingly become a part of the lives of over seven million refugees worldwide. The theme of this year’s World Refugee survey, in fact, is warehousing, a term applied refugees who have lived in camps for 10 years or more. Such warehousing has led to the denial of the rights of refugees set forth in the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951. These rights include not only freedom from discrimination because of race, religion or country of origin, but also the right to work and move freely in the host country, and thereby earn a livelihood.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) offers a case in point. Half a million Karen and other ethnic refugees, many of them Christian, have lived for a dozen or more years in camps in Thailand. Refugees found outside their designated camps in Thailand can be arrested and jailed. Myanmarese women have been sexually abused in the detention centers, and many have been released only to be trafficked into brothels.

The treatment of refugees varies depending on the host country. Tanzania, which has one of Africa’s biggest refugee populations, has pursued strong anti-refugee policies toward Burundians, who flooded across the border into Tanzania after the assassination of Burundi’s Hutu president. Although land is plentiful in western Tanzania, restrictions on mobility mean that refugees have little opportunity to grow food or pursue economic opportunities that would promote self-sufficiency.

Advocates point to three possible solutions to the warehousing of refugees. Of the three, Mr. Frelick said that the most favored is voluntary repatriation to their own countries; but this is possible only when circumstances in these countries of origin have improved—clearly not an option in Sudan. A second solution involves integration into the host country. He noted, however, that unstable, economically depressed nations resist this approach, which is why refugees become warehoused in the first place. “Local communities tend to be fearful and resistant toward refugee populations,” he said. In fact, he added, “camps are created not only to ensure necessities, but also to provide protection” against often-resentful local communities.

Another solution is third-country resettlement, but no country is compelled to admit refugees for resettlement. The United States remains the lead country in accepting them, followed by Austria and Canada. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have heightened the barriers that prevent relocation here—especially with regard to Muslim refugees, whether Bosnians, Iraqis, Somalis or Afghans. These barriers, along with the slowness of the U.S. State Department in reaching out to identify resettlement cases for referral and interviewing, have left our resettlement program a shadow of its former self.

Although president Bush authorized the admission of up to 70,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2002-3, fewer than 28,000 were admitted. In the current fiscal year, advocates estimate that 50,000 might be admitted, still far short of the presidential limit. And yet the Migration and Refugee Service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified in June that 82,000 who could have received protection here remain in danger.

Resettlement offers a solution to only part of the war-driven refugee crisis, whether in Sudan or elsewhere, but it does present an opportunity for the rich countries to show a greater measure of generosity than has so far been the case. In the meantime, without stronger peacemaking pressure from the U.N. Security Council and the powerful nations of the North, humanitarian disasters like the one in Sudan may burst forth in other parts of the world as well in the years to come.

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