17 October 2008

An excellent article from the Reuters Foundation


Refugees are often in the headlines yet the reality of their lives is frequently misunderstood.
Tens of millions of people have been uprooted from their homes because of violence or persecution.
But not all these people are refugees. Villagers in Sudan's violent Darfur region who have fled to camps within Darfur are strictly speaking known as internally displaced people because they haven't left Sudan. Darfuris in camps in neighbouring Chad are refugees because they've crossed an international border.
The definition of a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality..." (1951 Refugee Convention)
Although the convention doesn't specifically deal with people fleeing war, or conflict-related conditions such as famine, the United Nations considers them refugees.


Contrary to many media reports, the global refugee population has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s when it hit a peak - over 17.8 million - partly due to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
However, this is not quite the good news it seems. The mass exodus from the Iraq war saw figures begin to creep up again in 2006 and 2007.
And with more and more internal conflicts replacing interstate wars, the number of internally displaced has risen significantly in recent years.
By the end of 2007, there were around 11.4 million refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR - the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Roughly 26 million others were displaced within their own countries because of violence or persecution, according to a U.N.-backed report by the Norwegian Refugee Council. And UNHCR says another 25 million were uprooted because of disasters like quakes and floods.
Aid workers call these internally displaced people "IDPs" for short, sometimes distinguishing between conflict IDPs and disaster IDPs.
The media often employs the term refugee incorrectly to describe economic migrants or illegal immigrants.
Economic migrants leave a country voluntarily to seek a better life. If they returned home they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees would not.


Refugees and IDPs have often fled for the same reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the two groups are treated.
Once they cross an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions.
The U.N. refugee agency and other humanitarian organisations work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives or eventually return home.
By contrast, IDPs have little, if any, of the protection and help that refugees get. The domestic government, which may view them as enemies of the state, retains control of their fate. They may also fall prey to rebels and militias operating inside or outside the camp.
There are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs and no U.N. body dedicated to their needs. Donors may also be unwilling to offer help if it means intervening in internal conflicts.
There's widespread debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR is not specifically mandated to cover their needs, but as they face many of the same problems as refugees, the agency oversees their protection and shelter in some places.


Arriving at a camp for refugees or IDPs does not ensure safety. Violence may come from militias and rebels operating inside or outside the camps.
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide large numbers of Hutus fled into Democratic Republic of Congo. It took a while for aid organisations to realise that Hutu militia leaders blamed for the massacres of Rwandan Tutsis virtually controlled the camps.
Another example is the camps in West Timor for refugees who fled the violence sparked by East Timor's independence vote in 2000. These camps were teeming with pro-Jakarta militia. Attacks and intimidation got so bad that UNHCR was forced to suspend its work. The militia also stopped refugees who wanted to return home to East Timor from leaving the camps.
Militias are not the only problem. Camps may also come under attack from troops targeting rebels they think are sheltering inside. This has happened in Darfur.
Refugees may also end up in a country that is itself far from safe. In a horrifying case in 2004, armed men attacked a camp for Congolese refugees in Burundi, setting huts ablaze and killing around 160 people, mostly women and children.
Cross border attacks are another danger. Agencies often try to make sure camps aren't too close to borders, but refugees may want to be near the border so that they can go home as soon as it seems safe.

read the rest of the article here.

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