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World: International Refugee Day Highlights Persistent And Growing Problems

Afghan refugees at a UNHCR facility in Pakistan in May (AFP) June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Today is World Refugee Day, and the plight of Afghans and Iraqis are two important areas of concern.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says Iran is forcibly deporting Afghan citizens back to Afghanistan, even when they are properly registered as refugees. At the same time, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says conflict in Iraq is driving out hundreds of thousands of people to neighboring countries.

Forcible Deportation

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the Iranian government to halt its forced deportations of Afghans, which it says is adding to the suffering of thousands of people.

Iraqis are now second only to Afghans as the largest group of refugees in the world.

HRW says that since the spring Iranian authorities have sent home almost 100,000 Afghans on the grounds that they are illegal immigrants rather than refugees.

But the rights group says Afghans who correctly registered as refugees -- and have lived and worked in Iran for years -- are being detained and deported along with undocumented new arrivals. Many of them end up on the Afghan side of the border, in deserts, with little food, water, or shelter.

HRW's Asia director, Brad Adams, says Iran can deport people who are there illegally, but it has to give them the chance to contest deportation and seek asylum. It's against international law to expel people arbitrarily.

"We are very concerned that a lot of people being returned are actually refugees and not economic migrants; Iran is trying to say that all are economic migrants and are pushing them back," he said. "Some of them are there for economic reasons, but many are there for political reasons."

Adams says the situation is growing more complicated because Afghans who returned home after the fall of the Taliban are now leaving again, as conditions in Afghanistan worsen "by the day."

Leaving Iraq

Turning to Iraq, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has marked World Refugee Day by issuing a report saying that the ongoing violence in Iraq caused some 1.5 million people to flee their homeland for Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere during 2006.

So great is the exodus of Iraqis that it has caused a 14 percent rise in the number of refugees in the world, to almost 10 million globally. That's the first rise in absolute numbers since 2002.

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler says more Iraqis have continued to stream out during 2007.

"We are estimating the number of Iraqi refugees at the moment as 2 million, and the number of persons who have been displaced within Iraq, in other words, those who are refugees in their own country, at another 2 million," he said.
Iraqis are now second only to Afghans as the largest group of refugees in the world.

Internal Displacement Problem

Spindler says one of the main difficulties facing agencies like the UNHCR is gaining access to refugees.

"The [problems] have more to do with access to the people we are trying to help, because of insecurity; indeed, I would say that the main challenge that we face, along with other agencies trying to help refugees and the displaced [are] attacks, killings, threats against our personnel in places like Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, Colombia, and so on," Spindler said.

The UNHCR names other countries with big refugee or internal displacement problems as Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Burma (Myanmar), Congo, Liberia, and Timor-Leste.

The charity group Christian Aid says that as bad as the situation may presently be, it is set to worsen dramatically in the coming decades. It estimates that up to one billion people could be refugees or displaced persons by 2050 if climate change continues unchecked.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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