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.

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