The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently recognizes 27 million persons as refugees (persons who have sought refuge across national boundaries) and another 26 million as internally displaced persons (IDPs) (persons who have sought refuge within their own countries). These people have fled war and political persecution based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Sometimes refugees result from natural disasters that force the migration of people into regions away from their homes. The Geneva Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as one who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted… is [living] outside [their] country of nationality.” Advocates for refugees suggest the broadening of the convention definition to include IDPs.
Most of the world’s displaced persons (refugees and IDPs) are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe, with a disproportionate number in the developing world. Ninety per cent of war refugees exist in the developing world, with the poorest countries—such as Malawi, Pakistan, and Zaire—harboring that same percentage. In 1999, about 9 million refugees existed in Africa, as a result of conflict in Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan. Asia harbors 8 million refugees who fled political persecution and war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. In Europe, the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the Caucasus region (Armenia and Georgia) resulted in the creation of 8 million refugees. Significant numbers of IDPs are in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Croatia.
A significant cause of the refugee crisis around the world is ethnic, political, and military conflicts fostered by the process and ideology of nation and state building. For example, the partitioning (boundary revising) of Africa by Europeans at the 1878 Berlin Conference ignored the territorial and ethnic collectivities of African social groups, thereby dividing traditional ethnic communities and encompassing socially distant African communities into a common territory (“nation”). This nation-building process set off conflict between the dominating colonial governments and the subjected Africans, as well as conflict between culturally different ethnics forced to live together in the arbitrarily drawn African nations.
Throughout the 20th century, the conflict between the colonized Africans and European colonizers manifested into the major African independence movements of countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Namibia, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Mozambique and exacerbated the conflict between the culturally diverse Africans living within the same territorial and political boundaries. An example of this bi-ethnic conflict is the ongoing war between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. The mass slaughters in 1994 of Tutsis by Hutus resulted in a forced migration of millions of Rwandans into Zaire, Burundi, and Uganda.
Although the ideology of nationalism assumes the right of nations to protect their people (“citizens”), its extreme version often creates a refugee crisis. In the 20th century, for example, ethnic nationalists interpreted this vying for nationhood as a right to expulsion, abuse, genocide, exclusion, and political persecution, leading many people to flee into neighboring countries.
The Phases of the Refugee Experience
A common framework in the study of refugees is the delineation and characterization of phases in the refugee experience. The pre-flight phase involves economic hardship and social disruption caused by war and political persecution. During this phase, by stealing livestock, closing down stores, and threatening violence, enemy soldiers undermine residents’ ability to make a living. Schools close, family members are killed, and people are forced to leave their homes and become refugees. Characterizing the flight phase of the refugee experience is emotional turmoil caused by an uncertain future, a longing for the culture left behind, the sometimes impersonal interrogation of UNHCR interviewers, and the harsh conditions of the passage to the country of asylum. Women are especially vulnerable to violence and rape during this phase.
Next is the settlement phase; at this time, governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or international agencies guide the refugees to settle in the country of asylum. Often, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, refugees are settled in the camps of border countries or choose to “self-settle” there as farmers seeking to integrate with the indigenous population. Generally, self-settlers fare better economically and socially than the camp refugees, who develop identities based on a sense of victimization and dependence vis-a-vis the helping nations and agencies. Some refugees remain in camps for more than 5 years.
In the last phase, resettlement, the government or nongovernment entities might place the refugees in a third country of asylum (often a neighboring country) or help to repatriate them into their home countries. Repatriation is the most durable and cost-effective solution to the refugee crisis. Except for the refugees for whom repatriation is a viable option, cultural conflict, employment difficulties, and prejudice characterize the experiences of refugees in the resettlement phase.
According to the United Nations’ 1996 report, Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, women and children constitute the majority of displaced persons (refugees and IDPs). Likewise, the Beijing Platform for Action recognized that 80 percent of the world’s refugees and IDPs are women and children. Children make up the largest age group in refugee camp populations, and half of these children are under the age of 16.
Refugee children—traumatized by war and sometimes separated from their parents or orphaned— arrive in countries of asylum undernourished, sick, dehydrated, and sometimes maimed by the landmines often used in contemporary warfare. A 1996 UN Children’s Fund report identified 1 million such children, reporting that 5 percent of the refugee population consists of “unaccompanied” children. The disruption of refugee children’s familial, religious, and school networks undermines their developing sense of community, identity, and safety. NGOs attempt to join children separated from their parents with distant relatives or organize them into groups under the watchful eye of a benevolent local community. Studies show that refugee children cope best with the experience of conflict and forced migration when they have family and peer support, a personality that is goal oriented and sociable, and when camp practices reflect sensitivity to the emotional and social needs of children.
The 1985 Nairobi Conference, 1970s UN Decade for Women, Fourth UN World Conference on Women, Beijing Conference on Women, and the UNHCR’s 1991 Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women all highlighted the sexual violence, economic inequality, and human rights violations that refugee women experience. Mozambican, Ethiopian, and Thai refugee women have told their stories of forced prostitution, sexual favors, and domestic violence. In Djibouti, border guards, policemen, or soldiers raped Eritrean and Ethiopian refugee women. At peril is the physical safety of women who must walk through desolate and long paths to collect food or fetch water. Refugee women legitimately claiming their share of food relief often come into conflict with local men who disproportionately keep greater shares for themselves. Men taking over most of the income-producing work in the camps displaced Eritrean refugee women from their traditional and income-generating roles.
Advocates for refugee women interpret the sexual violence, economic inequality, and persecution of these displaced women as human rights violations resulting from gender bias and male dominance. On the policy level, advocates suggest the managing and control of food relief distribution, spatial camp designs that foster the physical safety of women, and broadening the international definition of persecuted groups to include women.
- Ager, Alastair, ed. 1999. Refugees: Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration. New York: Cassell.
- Agger, Inger. 1994. The Blue Room. London: Zed.
- Cohen, Roberta and Francis M. Deng. 1998. Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Hitchcox, Linda. 1990. Vietnamese Refugees in Southeast Asian Camps. New York: St. Martin’s.
- 1996. The State of the World’s Children. New York: Oxford University Press.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 1991. Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
- Zolberg, Aristide R. and Peter M. Benda, eds. 2001. Global Migrants, Global Refugees: Problems and Solutions. Providence, RI: Berghahn.
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