Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

The global fallout

The global fallout

20 December 2001

The world will never be the same again following the events of September 11, 2001, in the United States.

This is true, not only for the immediate victims, their families and governments directly involved in the terrorist incidents, but for millions of people who were already among the most vulnerable in the world - refugees and asylum seekers in every part of the globe and virtually the entire population of Afghanistan.

The latest crisis in that country was triggered and perpetuated by the outside world - first when the Soviet army invaded the country, and then when the international community increasingly ignored the sad state in which it was left when foreign soldiers withdrew.

A years-long drought added to the misery and was already ravaging the land when hundreds of thousands of additional civilians became 'collateral damage' in the latest round of bombings and fighting - some of them dying, others fleeing to 'safer' villages and camps and some escaping across officially closed borders to neighbouring countries.

There has been a remarkable turnaround in military fortunes on the battlefield, but it is not immediately clear what effect that will have on the country's reeling civilian population, especially as another shuddering winter closed in on the region and much of the country was in a virtual state of lawlessness.

Away from Afghanistan, countries rushed to introduce anti-terrorist legislation, beefed up their frontier security and warily eyed foreigners of a 'certain hue.'

UNHCR sympathized with legitimate security concerns. But the refugee agency - along with many legislators - was equally worried that any 'rush to legislation' could compromise hard won legal protections for people with few other defenses and could help spread xenophobia already bubbling beneath the surface in some countries against 'bogus' refugees.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said repeatedly that the 1951 Refugee Convention already offers safeguards to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the international asylum system and noted that refugees were normally the victims of terrorism and not the perpetrators of it.

"Asylum seekers make a perfect target for people who want to invoke old prejudices against foreigners," Lubbers said. "Asylum seekers can't answer back."

But could there be a silver lining at the end of this particular crisis? The suffering will continue for some time to come, but with a large slice of luck and renewed commitment to humanitarian principles, just possibly.

Perhaps publics at large, focused for a moment on the crisis, will look behind the scare headlines and discover who refugees are - people just like you and me - and perhaps this time around the industrialized world will not walk away from Afghanistan in its greatest hour of need.