Refugees Magazine Issue 137 (2004 Year In Review) - Editorial: "Good news and bad news"
There was good news for refugees in the most unlikely places in 2004. Exiles were allowed to vote in Afghanistan's first ever presidential elections and a refugee woman cast the first symbolic ballot at a camp in neighbouring Pakistan. A world away, a former refugee was one of two women to represent Afghanistan for the first time ever at the Athens Olympics.
In the ruins of the Liberian capital of Monrovia, refugees came back to find their homes destroyed, but neighbours willing to share whatever little they had with old friends once again reunited. There were similar scenes across the continent, in Sierra Leone, Angola and on the Horn of Africa.
The last stragglers who fled Rwanda's genocide stumbled home, some to the astounding news that their families had survived a bloodletting in which an estimated 800,000 people were butchered. Global statistics showed that in the last three years the number of vulnerable people "of concern" to UNHCR dropped by more than three million and the number of persons seeking asylum in industrialized countries fell to the lowest levels in 17 years. These trends were expected to continue through 2005. There were also, of course, extremely troubling developments. Darfur became the world's latest mega-crisis with around two million people fleeing their villages and untold numbers slaughtered.
The European Union welcomed 10 new member states, but the Mediterranean region proved a deadly burial ground for hundreds of people trying to reach the continent. Situations in places like Iraq and Chechnya showed few signs of solution.
Even the basic principle of offering the world's most vulnerable people a modest degree of protection was under threat in many countries preoccupied more with security issues than humanitarian concerns.
Altogether, it was a "reasonably good year in a troublesome world," according to High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers.
For some frustrated aid officials, South and Central America is a "forgotten continent" and its most vulnerable victims "invisible refugees" - ignored and overshadowed by more obvious crisis areas such as Africa and Afghanistan.
But Latin American governments recently commemorated a major milestone in refugee protection work - the signing 20 years earlier of the Cartagena Declaration - which helped to resolve a series of wars in Central America in the 1980s and helped many of the two million civilians who had been forced to flee their homes.
Building on that Declaration, a meeting in Mexico City took the opportunity to launch a new plan of action to tackle the region's current problems, particularly the longtime crisis in Colombia where a further two million plus people have been uprooted during decades of civil war.
Lubbers praised the initiative by noting that "In a worldwide context of restrictive asylum policies and erosion of protection principles, it is encouraging to see that countries in Latin America are committed to uphold high protection standards."
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 137: "2004 Year In Review" (January 2005).