World Refugees Number 35 Million

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2003
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At least 35 million people in the world—more than the entire population of Canada—have been forced to run for their lives, and are either temporarily or permanently exiled from their homes. Half of them are women and children.

Many live in refugee camps, fleeing persecution, armed conflict, murder, rape, and mutilation. Being in a refugee camp doesn't mean you're finally safe. It doesn't mean you're sure to be fed. It means your odds are better. Maybe.

West Africa today is an example of the nightmare that many refugees call their lives. Over the last several weeks, tens of thousands of refugees from Sierra Leone who were living in tent camps on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, fled into the city as fighting between rebel and government troops overran the camps. Tens of thousands of Liberians have become refugees in Côte d'Ivoire to avoid the fighting.

Many arriving in Monrovia "brought worrying reports of widespread incidents of violence, intimidation, and extortion during and after the fighting that raged at the end of last week on the outskirts of the capital," reported United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Rupert Colville at a June 13 press briefing in Geneva.

Increasingly overcrowded transit centers in Cote d'Ivoire are running low on food, medicine, and non-food items like blankets, tents, soap, and everything else people need to survive. There's also the threat that the influx of refugees could trigger another round of the ongoing fighting in Côte d'Ivoire. UN and other aid workers in Liberia were evacuated June 10, making it virtually impossible to provide aid to the refugees who remain in hiding in the Liberian capital.

"Many of the refugees in Monrovia had fled to Liberia from Sierra Leone," said UNHCR spokesperson Joung-Ah Ghedini. "This is the second or third time they've had to flee the camp they came to for safety. People don't just get displaced once. More often than not, especially lately, refugees are displaced multiple times."

UNHCR was initially created in December 1950 to help the millions of Europeans displaced by World War II. The world has changed mightily since then.

"It's a common misconception among citizens of industrialized countries to think that refugees are poor, homeless, uneducated farmers with the bad luck to be living in war-torn nations," said Ghedini, who has spent the last seven years working in refugee camps in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Kosovo, Serbia, and Eritrea.

"In the Balkans, for instance, many people were professionals, fleeing urban settings where they had been living in skyscrapers, with the Internet and mobile phones. It's not just rural Africans and Asians. Albert Einstein was a refugee. So was Henry Kissinger."

Of the 20 million people currently receiving assistance from UNHCR, approximately 12 million are refugees living in camps or similar conditions. Others can be found living in urban centers.

In Iran, for instance, around 200,000 Iraqi refugees, many of whom fled more than ten years ago after the 1991 Gulf War, settled in Khuzestan province. Of these, almost three-quarters live among the local Iranian population, especially in and around the provincial capital Ahwaz, where there are whole neighborhoods comprised of Iraqis.

Fleeing for your Life

UNHCR currently has operations in roughly 115 countries. The number of camps in any given country can fluctuate and can range in size from 200 to 300 people to as many as 800,000 people. The smaller camps in many cases are essentially whole villages that have fled together. Camps can spring up virtually overnight, often just across the border from the country undergoing conflict, says Ghedini.

"The camps very close to the borders are not safe, and we try to avoid them," she said. "So many borders are porous, and it makes it that much easier for undesirable elements to come in either to hide, to use civilian populations as a human shield, or to recruit soldiers, often forcibly. Camps close to the border are also extremely vulnerable to attack."

Security is always a key concern for UNHCR when camps are being established. Even if UN peacekeepers are detailed to the camp, they are unarmed. In some regions, government or rebel forces deny aid workers access.

Beyond security, location is another factor. Camps need to be relatively removed from the border areas to be safe from surrounding conflict, but roads and infrastructure are needed to funnel in supplies and provide access to water.

Providing water is often the biggest problem faced by camp administrators, followed by sanitation and health issues.

"It's very easy for cholera and other epidemics to spread very quickly when thousands of people are in such close contact with one another," said Ghedini.

Makeshift classrooms and health centers are established almost immediately, often times utilizing skills of the refugees. Aside from the obvious detriments of living in a camp, boredom figures large as a problem.

"People need some sense of stability even if they're living under a sheet of plastic," said Ghedini. "At home, you may have been a teacher, or a doctor, or a farmer, and now you're sitting in a camp; it's crowded and you can't really move around a lot, you don't know what's going to happen the next day, how you're going to put food on the table for your family; it can be extremely debilitating. We try to give people a purpose."

Returning Home

The UNHCR mandate extends to helping returning refugees by providing food, assistance, and protection, although this can sometimes be difficult.

"In Kosovo we made plans for 400,000 refugees to return in the first 10 months—they returned in the first 10 days. We tried to tell them it wasn't safe, there were land mines everywhere, armed groups wandering the countryside, and extensive structural damage. But people were just too anxious to go home."

Iraqi refugees in Iran are similarly clamoring to return to Iraq. Some families have been in Iran for 30 years, having fled in the 1970s. Many of the children have never set foot in Iraq, yet consider it their homeland. Almost all hope to return home now that Saddam has fallen, despite the continuing volatility of the situation in Iraq.

"Refugees are not like immigrants who have made a choice to leave their homes in hopes of starting a new life somewhere," said Ghedini. "For refugees, the decision was imposed on them; they were forced to leave because of a genuine fear of persecution or worse than that. Once people think it's safe, they generally return very quickly."


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. In more than five decades, the agency has helped an estimated 50 million people restart their lives.

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