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UN: World Refugee Day Shifts Focus From Politics To People

Many Uzbek refugees fled to Kyrgyzstan after the recent violence War. Hunger. Persecution. Ordinary people rarely have to face such challenges, but these grim realities define the daily existence of many of the world's 19 million refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. That's why the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, has chosen "courage" as the theme for this year's World Refugee Day, on 20 June. In places such as Chechnya and Uzbekistan, courage is needed to flee war and deadly violence. In Iraq and Afghanistan, refugees must summon the courage to return, not knowing if life will be better than when they left.

Prague, 16 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Makhamadjon Qodirov is one of hundreds of Uzbeks who escaped a government crackdown on protesters in Andijon last month by crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan.

Qodirov says he, his wife, and his 22-year-old son first lived in a temporary, overcrowded camp before being transferred to a larger refugee camp at Suzak, in the Jalalabad region:

"We had been living in a camp near the [Kyrgyz-Uzbek] border, where about 50 people stayed in one tent," Qodirov told RFE/RL. "Now it is getting better, and about eight people live in one tent [in Suzak]. There is more room."

Qodirov is one of more than 9 million people classified as refugees around the world. The courage to overcome such hardships is the focus of this year's World Refugee Day on 20 June, sponsored by the UN high commissioner on refugees (UNHCR).

"Of course, it takes enormous courage to flee in the first place, very often just to survive whatever it is that's causing someone to be a refugee -- persecution, war, violence, anarchy, whatever," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Geneva, told RFE/RL "For those who come to Europe, it's very often an awful journey. Practically, the only way a lot of people can get here is in the hands of smugglers, who are pretty ruthless and rather short on morals, and people are stuffed in containers and that type of thing. And then, very often when they get to an asylum country, there is this level of hostility. Life is very difficult. They lack a lot of the things the rest of us take for granted."

Provisional figures show the number of refugees and others the UNHCR lists as "people of concern" rose by some 2 million in 2004 to a total of around 19 million. Colville says that for the first quarter of 2005, the 5,078 asylum seekers from Serbia and Montenegro -- including Kosovo -- topped the list of applicants in industrialized nations, mostly in Europe.
World Refugee Day, Colville says, helps draw attention to the "unimaginably difficult" lives that such refugees lead.

In second place, the 4,867 asylum applications from the Russian Federation, mostly Chechens, dropped by 37 percent compared with the same period last year. Colville says the sharp drop is so far unexplained.

It's a different story in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the political and social landscapes have been transformed by two wars.

"Two of the biggest groups [of refugees] we've had in recent years -- the Afghans and the Iraqis -- they fell away quite dramatically after there was a significant change in their home countries," Colville said. "The Iraqis might be temporary given the problems there still are in that country. We also have reports there are many, many Iraqis now in Jordan and Syria, the two neighboring countries. So they may go up again. But the Afghans, I think, really are a good-news story. There were between 3 [million] and 6 million Afghan refugees for almost a quarter of a century, and now 3.5 million of them have gone home, and they still are going home in large numbers. So that's very good news."

But it may take as much courage to remain in Afghanistan as it did to come back.

Zaher is a 35-year-old Afghan man who recently returned with his family to northern Faryab Province from Iran. He echoes the comments of many returning Afghans, who say the impoverished country is ill prepared for their return.

"Since my arrival, I have not seen any official or authority who can look after us or help us," Zaher told RFE/RL's Afghan Service. "For example, I told them they should give us a tent, but we were told that this is not in their program. Now, we are sitting in the open air, under the heat of the sun, and in the cold."

Meanwhile, a UN human rights mission arrived in Kyrgyzstan this week to speak with refugees who fled last month's violence in eastern Uzbekistan. Colville says the UNHCR is concerned with more than the physical well-being of the 460 Uzbek refugees in the Suzak camp.

"The camp population is still being pressured psychologically to return to Uzbekistan by relatives who are coming from Uzbekistan on visits that are very clearly, visibly organized by the Uzbek authorities -- and monitored by them, as well," UNHCR spokesman Colville said. "And they've been putting a lot of pressure on the people in the camp to go home. And that is a bit disturbing because it is causing obviously a lot of turmoil in the minds of the people in the camp, when your very close relatives come and are crying and screaming and looking like they're under great pressure to make you come back."

One Uzbek mother in the Suzak camp who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL that she is afraid to return home, despite being separated from her children. "We wanted to return and go home, but we couldn't," she said, sobbing. "They were shooting. Now, we are very afraid to go back. There is no way for us to return home. We thought we'd go home after [the shooting] ended. I have two children back home. We all have left children there. Some have four [kids], some even have six. Some of us left our nursing babies back home. We wanted to go home, but they were shooting at us."

World Refugee Day, Colville says, helps draw attention to the "unimaginably difficult" lives that such refugees lead. He says it's a day to focus on the people, who are often forgotten amid the politics.

(More on World Refugee Day can be found at

(Rahmat Reha of the Afghan Service, and Sultan Kanazarov and Yrysbai Abdyraimov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this story.)
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.