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The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action

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The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action

13 November 2000

The number of asylum seekers in developed countries will continue to swell unless more is done to address the root causes of conflict and to help millions of displaced people within their own regions, the U.N. refugee agency warns in a new book.

"The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action," provides a historical overview of refugee movements over the past five decades and examines the evolution of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) into one of the world's leading humanitarian organizations. It describes the development of international refugee law in a world that is increasingly reluctant to keep its doors open to the displaced.

The book also provides new insight into the politics of international humanitarian action. It describes the social and political context within which people were forced to flee their homes and the politics of the international response. The book is based largely on first-hand accounts from UNHCR staff and on extensive use of the UNHCR archives, which were recently opened to the public.

It also presents some of the more controversial issues associated with refugee protection, including the militarization of refugee camps, military intervention and instances of forcible repatriation of refugees.

Established by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1950, UNHCR began work on Jan. 1, 1951, with a staff of 33 people and a budget of just $300,000. Initially, it was given a three-year mandate to resettle some 1 million post-World War II refugees, and then its work was supposed to end. Fifty years later, the Geneva-based agency's 5,000 staff in 120 countries care for 22.3 million refugees and others of concern, with a budget of about $1 billion annually.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata notes in the book's foreword that UNHCR's 50th anniversary is no cause for celebration. Instead, its longevity is a reflection of the international community's continuing failure to prevent prejudice, persecution, poverty and other root causes of displacement and conflict.

"Humanitarian action is of limited value if it does not form part of a wider strategic and political framework aimed at addressing the root causes of conflict," writes Ogata, who ends her 10-year term as High Commissioner on Dec. 31. "Humanitarian action alone cannot solve problems which are fundamentally political in nature."

In an era of continuing population movements and ever tighter asylum policies, the book warns that rich countries will continue to face refugee and irregular migration flows unless root causes are tackled. "If the disparity between the world's wealthiest and poorest countries continues to grow ... and if countries outside the industrialized world are not sufficiently encouraged and supported in providing protection and assistance to refugees in their regions, the numbers of people seeking new lives in the world's wealthiest states will remain high," it says.

The book says that legislative changes to asylum systems in industrialized states over the last two decades have largely been aimed at trying to control irregular - including economic - migration. In most cases, however, these changes have failed to recognize that some people have a real need to seek protection from persecution.

"Industrialized states have particular responsibilities in matters of refugee protection," it says. "Not only were they instrumental in drafting the major international refugee and human rights instruments half a century ago, but more importantly, the example they set will inevitably influence the way in which refugees are treated by other states in the years ahead."

The book examines various deterrence measures that have been imposed by governments to combat "mixed flows" of migrants and refugees. In general, it says, these policies have contributed to a blurring of the already problematic distinction between refugees and economic migrants, and have stigmatized refugees as people trying to circumvent the law.

But despite all the resources devoted to border control measures - particularly in Europe - the enforcement approach to migration and asylum has not solved the problem of large numbers of migrants entering in an irregular manner, the book says. Instead, it has tended to drive both migrants and asylum seekers into the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

"With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees are turning to smugglers to reach safety, seriously compromising their claims in the eyes of many states," the book says. "When combined with the increased tendency of states to detain asylum seekers, the effect is to stigmatize further asylum seekers in the public mind as criminals."

In addition, frustration among some governments over their inability to control migration has in the past few years led to a number of radical new proposals. These include suggestions of a "defense line" to protect Europe from illegal migrants and asylum seekers and calls for the amendment or replacement of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the very foundation of UNHCR's work.

"The implication was that the Convention was to blame for the inability of governments to curb unwanted migration - a purpose for which it was never designed," the book notes, adding that it is ironic that the 1951 Convention is facing one of its greatest challenges in its birthplace - Europe.

Other issues covered by "The State of the World's Refugees" include:

Early years.
Beginning with the mass displacement in Europe after World War II, the book addresses the flight of refugees from Hungary in 1956; crises associated with the process of decolonization in Africa; the Bangladesh refugee emergency in 1971; the sustained exodus from Indochina which began in the 1970s; and the large outflows resulting from the protracted wars of the 1980s in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Central America.

The 1990s.
Looking at the challenges of the 1990s, the book examines the population shifts in the former Soviet region; the Kurdish exodus from northern Iraq following the Gulf War; the increasingly restrictive asylum policies in Europe and North America; and the recent crises in the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa, East Timor and the Caucasus.

North America and Europe.
The book examines the implications for asylum seekers of new measures adopted by states in the industrialized world to control and restrict access to their territory. It looks at the major role of North America in support of refugees and resettlement over the years as well as alleged double standards in treatment by the United States of Haitian and Cuban asylum seekers; the policy of interdiction of Haitians on the high seas; detention of asylum seekers; and the controversial 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

Internal Displacement.
While UNHCR's mandate to protect and assist refugees has not changed over the last 50 years, its involvement with the internally displaced - those who have not actually crossed international borders to become refugees - has grown considerably. Who should care for the world's estimated 20-25 million internally displaced persons?

Ensuring the security of aid workers and refugees has become increasingly difficult in a world where the displacement of civilians has become a prime motive of war and those who help the victims are viewed as targets. All too often, the book says, humanitarian organizations like UNHCR have found themselves isolated and alone in dangerous and difficult situations, operating without adequate financial and political support.

Disparity in Response.
The response from states in dealing with displacement varies according to the strategic importance governments place on particular operations or crises. In 1999, UNHCR received over 90 percent of funds requested for former Yugoslavia, while only around 60 percent for Africa programmes. About $120 per person was spent in former Yugoslavia in 1999; more than three times the $35 per person spent in West Africa.

The international community must do more to ensure reconstruction and reconciliation after wars have come to an end. All too often, states have lacked such commitment and conflicts have re-ignited. More systematic efforts are needed to strengthen democratic institutions and good governance in countries making the transition from war to peace. "Unresolved displacement may fatally complicate the resolution of wars and the stability of peace," the book says.

Funding Trends.
UNHCR's budget has risen dramatically - from $300,000 in 1951 to about $1 billion a year today. But the funds available for refugee assistance are limited and most of UNHCR's funding comes from a small number of states. North America, Japan and West European countries accounted for 97 percent of all government contributions in 1999.