Refugees in Peril

Forced from their homes by armed conflicts, political unrest and human rights abuses, refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world continue their painful search for safety. According to the 2006 World Refugee Survey, released recently by the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, they now number approximately 12 million people. As painful as their lives are, the very fact that they have crossed borders into other countries gives them official status as refugees in the eyes of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and entitles them to certain protections and benefits. Less fortunate are the estimated 21 million people known as internally displaced persons. Driven from their native places but unable to cross borders into other nations, they lead lives of wandering, often subjected to hunger and violence within their own nations. Africa has the largest number of I.D.P.’s, with over five million trapped in Sudan alone. Colombia holds second place with almost four million, followed by Uganda with two. Sadly, the governments of these and other nations are often themselves responsible for the displacements, as well as for the lack of protections that should be accorded their citizens. A dozen governments, the survey notes, have responded to I.D.P. needs with indifference or outright hostility.

Countries that host refugees, primarily those in the developing world, frequently place onerous restrictions on their movement outside camps and settlements and limit their right to earn a livelihood. Some of them are obliged to remain in their confined areas for long periods. Indeed, when the period is over five years, refugees are viewed as warehoused, a condition that effectively strips them of their dignity and their sense of self-reliance.

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Among the countries that impose the severest limits on movement and the right to work are Bangladesh and Thailand. The former keeps 21,000 confined to refugee camps. Those caught outside are threatened with arrest and are frequently exposed to extortion. Combined with these restrictions on free movement is denial of the right to work or to engage in businessmeasures that can cripple self-reliance, leading to the depression common in many camps. Such severity is partly based on a desire to make the lives of refugees and asylum seekers so difficult that many might prefer to risk return to the countries from which they had fled. Thailand is in some ways harsher than Bangladesh, forcing the return of Burmese ethnic groups back into the hands of the repressive Myanmar government.

Both countries, along with others in Africa and Asia, hold many thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in detention facilities for long periods. They thus become prisoners within the larger confinement of host countries that often deny freedom of movement and the right to work, both of which are guaranteed through the 1951 Convention Relating to Status of Refugees. Ironically, these rights are indirectly related to the resentment often felt toward refugees in host countries. The survey speaks, for example, of competition in Chad between refugees and local people for such scarce resources as wood and water.

Although the industrialized countries provide most of the funding that helps maintain the precarious existence of refugees and asylum seekers, the wealthy nations have shown less and less commitment to them. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that these same countries have largely regressed in their commitment to protect refugees...[by] adopting particularly hostile and restrictive policies. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the statement adds, many countries have pushed through anti-terrorism legislation that curtails the rights of refugees.

An especially harsh aspect of our own anti-terrorism legislation has become evident in its strict interpretation of what is meant by material support for terrorist organizations. Anastasia Brown, director of refugee services at the Migration and Refugee Service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told America of a case involving a woman in Sierra Leone. Rebel gang members broke into her home, killed her husband and repeatedly raped her. But because they remained in her home for a week, she was viewed as having supplied them with material support and is currently unable to come to the United States as a refugee.

Ms. Brown noted that largely because of this strict interpretation, based on the USA Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, only 40,000 refugees will be admitted this year, even though the president has authorized 70,000. These two laws need to be reconsidered, along with the United States’ overall attitude toward immigrants, if the United States is to remain true to its reputation of welcoming the stranger. That reputation, now increasingly shredded, is sorely in need of strengthening in ways suggestive of justice rather than punishment.

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