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U.S.: New Report Calls Refugees Indirect Victims Of War On Terrorism

  • Jeffrey Donovan

War and civil strife helped drive up the world's refugee population in 2001 for the third straight year, while the number of internally displaced persons grew by 4 million. A new report released in Washington yesterday provides some sobering data behind the crisis, and urges governments not to harm refugees as they pursue their own war on terrorism.

Washington, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A new report says the U.S.-led war on terrorism is indirectly hurting the world's refugee population.

The report, the Global Refugee Survey by the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), says war and civil strife caused the world's refugee population to swell by 400,000 in 2001 to 14.9 million. It says a further 22 million people remain displaced inside their own countries. The total number of "uprooted people" is between 37 million and 40 million people.

The report says that following the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan, refugees there have begun returning en masse. But it says the war on terrorism overall may have worsened the plight of refugees by leading the U.S. and some European governments to restrict the inflow of refugees.

The report says, for example, the U.S. last year admitted its fewest number of refugees in almost 15 years -- 68,000. The year before, the U.S. opened its doors to about 72,500 refugees from abroad. The slowdown has continued into 2002, with Washington letting in only 15,000 refugees through the end of May -- far short of President George W. Bush stated goal of accepting 70,000 refugees this year.

Lavinia Limon, the USCR's executive director, made this observation: "Here in the United States, the impact [of 11 September on refugees] was immediate and severe. The entire refugee admissions program was brought to a halt. Thousands of refugees who had been admitted for resettlement in the United States were stranded in places of danger. Many are still there."

The reports says European countries had similar responses, partly due to rising anti-immigrant sentiments. In late 2001, Britain and Germany passed antiterrorism laws that curtailed the rights of immigrants and refugees. And traditionally tolerant Denmark last week adopted some of Europe's toughest immigration laws.

Moreover, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced plans this week to fingerprint, photograph, and register thousands of foreign visitors to the U.S. as part of America's antiterrorist efforts. It is believed that most of those targeted will come from countries that the U.S. says sponsor terrorism.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Mary Robinson yesterday expressed concern over Ashcroft's plan, saying it potentially targeted innocent people.

Meanwhile, human rights groups such as Amnesty International say Europe's new wave of anti-immigrant laws is likely to harm genuine refugees, who need protection. The USCR's Limon said, "We believe that it is terribly wrong to allow refugees to become collateral damage in our effort to protect ourselves."

The Global Refugee Survey says that 2001 was the third straight year that the world has seen an increase in refugees, following six years of declines in the 1990s. Afghans and Palestinians led the world's refugee populations, with more than 4 million each.

Meanwhile, more than half of the world's 22 million internally displaced people came from just five places: Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine, Angola, and Colombia. Other countries with large numbers of internally displaced peopled include Iraq (700,000), Azerbaijan (572,000), Russia (474,000), Bosnia (439,000), Yugoslavia (277,000), and Georgia (264,000).

Jeff Drumtra is a senior policy analyst for the USCR. He says civil strife and unrest have displaced at least 100,000 people within 30 different countries. Drumtrasaid, "Just last year alone, calendar year 2001, 4 million new people fled their homes because of war, civil unrest, and persecution."

As for refugee returns, the report points to the relatively hopeful sign of growing numbers of Afghans returning to their country. Afghans led the pack in voluntary repatriation in 2001, with 208,000 returning to their country from Iran, Pakistan, and other nations.

The Balkans also showed large numbers returning home -- nearly 19,000 to Bosnia, 16,000 to Yugoslavia, and 12,000 to Croatia.

But the report says involuntary repatriation -- repatriation against a refugee's will -- remains a problem. The report says Iran expelled more than 120,000 Afghan refugees. Tajikistan did the same to 12,000 Afghans. Germany and Switzerland forcibly repatriated more than 7,000 people to Bosnia and Yugoslavia last year. The U.S., meanwhile, deported nearly 4,000 refugees to Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Latin American countries.

Forced repatriation is currently under scrutiny in Ingushetia, where hundreds of thousands of Chechens are under pressure from Moscow to return to their homeland, still ravaged by violence. USCR Director Bill Frelick had this to say on repatriation: "I think we need to be aware that while repatriation can be the best solution, it can also be the worst solution if it's coerced and people don't know what they're returning to."

Frelick urges Western governments not to confuse illegal immigrants with genuine refugees. He says Afghanistan, where refugees are returning in droves despite still uncertain security conditions, is illustrative: "It's a reminder that refugees overwhelmingly are not would-be immigrants, but they are people who want to go home when they can."

(The full report can be found at http://www.refugees.org/)

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