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Enduring exile

Some six million people are trapped in mainly poor countries as long-term refugees, writes the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres

December 11, 2008
5 min read

Refugees are a symbol of our turbulent times. As each new conflict erupts, the world’s newspapers and television screens are filled with pictures of masses on the move, fleeing from their own country with just the clothes on their back and the few possessions they are able to carry. Those who survive the journey depend on the willingness of neighbouring states to open their borders and the ability of humanitarian organisations to provide the new arrivals with food, shelter and other basic needs.

But what happens once the exodus is over, the journalists have packed their bags and the world has turned its attention to the next crisis? In the vast majority of cases, the refugees are left behind, obliged to spend the best years of their lives in shabby camps and shanty settlements, exposed to all kind of dangers and with serious restrictions placed upon their rights and freedoms.

The problem of protracted refugee situations has reached enormous proportions. According to UNHCR’s most recent statistics, some six million people (excluding the special case of more than four million Palestinian refugees) have now been living in exile for five years or longer. More than 30 of these situations are to be found throughout the world, the vast majority in African and Asian countries, which are struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens.

Many of these refugees are effectively trapped in the camps and communities. They cannot go home because their countries of origin – Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan for example – are at war or are affected by serious human rights violations. Only a tiny proportion have the chance of being resettled in Australia, Canada, the UK, the USA or another developed country. And in most cases, the authorities in their countries where they have found refuge will not allow them to integrate with the local population or to become citizens of those states.

During their long years in exile, these refugees are confronted with a very harsh and difficult life. In some cases they have no freedom of movement, do not have access to land and are forbidden from finding a job. As time passes, the international community loses interest in such situations. Funding dries up and essential services such as education and health care stagnate and then deteriorate.

Packed into overcrowded settlements, deprived of an income and with little to occupy their time, these refugee populations are afflicted by all kinds of social ills, including prostitution, rape and violence.

Unsurprisingly, and despite the restrictions placed upon them, many take the risk of moving to an urban area or trying to migrate to another country, putting themselves in the dangerous hands of human smugglers and traffickers.

Refugee girls and boys suffer enormously in such circumstances. A growing proportion of the world’s exiles have been born and raised in the artificial environment of a refugee camp, their parents unable to work and in many cases reliant upon the meagre rations provided by international aid agencies. And even if peace returns to their country of origin, these youngsters will go back to a ‘homeland’, which they have never seen and where they may not even speak the local language.

I consider it intolerable that the human potential of so many people is being wasted during their time in exile and imperative that steps are taken to provide them with a solution to their plight.

First, a concerted effort is required to halt the armed conflicts and human rights violations that force people to flee from their country and oblige them to live as refugees. In this respect, the UN has a particularly important role to play, whether by means of mediation, negotiation, the establishment of peacekeeping missions or the punishment of those who are found guilty of war crimes.

Second, while funding may be scarce as a result of the financial crisis, every effort must be made to improve conditions for the world’s long-term refugees, whether they are living in camps, rural or urban areas. Particular emphasis should be placed on providing exiled populations with livelihoods, education and training. With these resources at their disposal, refugees will be able to live a more productive and rewarding life and prepare for their future, wherever that might be.

Finally, while we will not solve the world’s protracted refugee situations by moving all the people concerned to the more developed regions of the world, the richer nations should demonstrate their solidarity with countries that host large numbers of refugees by resettling a proportion of them, especially those whose security and welfare is at greatest risk. The UK’s Gateway Protection Programme is one such resettlement initiative aiming to protect 750 vulnerable refugees a year by bringing to Britain.

The refugee problem is a responsibility of the international community as a whole, and can only be effectively tackled by means of collective and cooperative action. We must ensure that the assistance provided to refugees also brings tangible benefits to local populations. We must encourage the international community to provide adequate support to those countries that are prepared to naturalise refugees and give them citizenship.

And we must establish more effective approaches to the return and reintegration of refugees in their countries of origin, thereby enabling them to benefit from and contribute to the peacebuilding process.

António Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, head of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and former Prime Minister of Portugal.

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