by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
yet more evidence that the "war on terrorism" has had deep impacts worldwide, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) has called on the administration of President George W. Bush to re-open its doors to tens of thousands of people in limbo since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"For the sake of refugees everywhere, it is imperative that the United States, which traditionally has set the example that others have followed, restore its leadership in refugee protection," said USCR executive director Lavinia Limon in the group's annual report.
Some 4.3 million people around the world were uprooted from their homes last year, most of them in Africa, far from the international media spotlight that was focused almost exclusively on events in the Middle East and South Asia, says the report, released here May 29.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International said in its annual report that the U.S.-led "war on terrorism" was creating more hardships for the world's refugees, who numbered some 13 million people by the end of last year.
According to the USCR report, some 22 million more people were internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- displaced from their homes but forced to seek refuge within their home countries.
"Since September 11 (2001), refugees and asylum seekers have had even more difficulty than before in finding safety," according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers in a feature article included in this year's report. "No corner of the globe has been immune... Increasingly, governments exclude (refugees) from protection and detain them."
That applied in particular to the United States which, due to new post-9/11 security precautions, admitted only 27,100 refugees last year, by far the lowest number since the program's inception in 1980, and only about one-third the average number admitted during the past five years. The effect was to leave tens of thousands of people who had already qualified for refugee status in limbo and uncertainty, sometimes in squalid refugee camps overseas, according to the report.
Almost three quarters of the people uprooted in 2002 -- some 2.9 million -- were African, bringing the region's total displaced by the start of 2003 to 13.7 million, including some three million refugees and at least 10.7 million IDPs. Some 70 percent of the displaced were from just four countries: Sudan (4.4 million), Angola (2.5 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (2.4 million) and Burundi (800,000).
The worst upheavals took place in just six countries -- Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, DRC, Angola and Liberia -- where civil wars raged for at least part of the year. Yet the global media, focused on the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the build-up to a second war in Iraq, paid virtually no attention, adds the report.
"Terrible events unfolded in Africa that remained largely unnoticed by the rest of the world," said USCR Africa policy analyst Joel Frushone. "A million people fled their homes last year in Burundi alone because of civil war, but the name 'Burundi' rarely if ever appeared in newspapers or on television screens."
That lack of attention was one reason for major shortfalls in humanitarian assistance for new and existing refugees and IDPs across the continent from donor countries, the report said.
Even in countries like Angola and Sierra Leone, where peace was largely restored and hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs began returning home in the course of the year, relief and reconstruction supplies were not as plentiful as they should have been.
In a special chapter of the report on Palestinian refugees, USCR analyst Ahmed Jabri argued that the international community should extend the same protection to Palestinian refugees as it does to all refugees worldwide. "It is time for the UNHCR to assume a comprehensive legal protection mandate for Palestinian refugees under the Refugee Convention," including the right to move about freely and to obtain gainful employment.
The report also noted that, like the United States, EU countries were making it more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to gain refuge there. "Several nations moved to pass restrictive asylum laws and policies, continuing the trend of wariness towards immigrants and asylum seekers," said USCR policy analyst Michelle Berg.
The major story in South and Central Asia for the year was the return of more than 1.8 million Afghan refugees to their homeland after the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001 -- the largest and fastest refugee repatriation in the world in more than 30 years.
While that in itself constituted a major achievement, the international community failed to provide two essential elements to make reintegration sustainable: security beyond the capital Kabul, and sufficient reconstruction assistance, the report says.
Indeed, many returnees reportedly found conditions in Afghanistan so difficult that as many as 300,000 are believed to have returned to Pakistan either for the winter or to stay permanently. In addition, despite prodding from host governments, some two million refugees in Iran (which harbors more refugees than any other country) and 1.5 million in Pakistan have not returned, while some 700,000 Afghans were internally displaced by year's end.
The other relatively bright spot in the region was Sri Lanka, where peace talks and a cease-fire in the 20-year-old civil war encouraged about half of some 560,000 IDPs to return home. Meanwhile, some 100,00 Indian Muslims were forcibly displaced from their homes in Gujarat after communal rioting there early last year.
Elsewhere in Asia, the most critical situation, according to USCR, was the ongoing exodus of North Koreans into China, which has not only failed to grant them refuge, but has forcibly returned tens of thousands back to harsh labor camps, torture and even execution.
"China is violating the bedrock principle of international refugee law," according to Jana Mason, a USCR analyst, by treating the refugees as "economic migrants." The report estimates that at least 100,000 North Korean refugees were living in China by the end of 2002, mostly in the border region.
Elsewhere in Asia, more than half a million Burmese remained as refugees during 2002, mostly in Bangladesh and Thailand, while nearly 29,000 East Timorese repatriated from Indonesia. But in Indonesia itself, between 600,000 and one million people were internally displaced, largely due to communal violence that has wracked parts of the archipelago over the last several years.
In the Americas, the collapse of peace talks between the government of Colombia and the country's largest guerrilla group, as well as the election of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, have resulted in a major escalation of the civil war there and record high displacement. Some 400,000 Colombians were uprooted from their homes, adding to the more than two million IDPs in Colombia before 2002. Another 100,000 Colombians sought refuge in neighboring countries or North America, according to the report.
In the Middle East, some three million Palestinians remained refugees scattered throughout the region, while Israeli military operations in densely populated refugee camps and towns in the West Bank and Gaza left more than a thousand Palestinians dead, many others injured, and thousands more homeless by the end of the year, according to the report. With the frequent closures and curfews enforced by the Israeli military, poverty and even malnutrition rates rose sharply during the year.
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