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World Refugee Day: Some Progress, but Millions Remain Displaced


June 20 is designated World Refugee Day. The United States has authorized 7,000 refugees for entry into the country this year, although at present there is only enough funding for 54,000 -- and that includes slots for relatives of refugees already admitted. Carolyn Weaver talked to two officials, one from the State Department and one from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who help lead efforts to return refugees safely to their homes, or to settle in other countries.

Wendy Young is the coordinator for external relations for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, regional office in Washington, D.C. She says the good news is that refugee numbers are actually dropping. "This year, we experienced a 26-year low, she said. "The number of refugees that UNHCR is caring for dropped from about 9.5 million to 8.4 million this year."

Kelly Ryan is the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the Department of State. She says over half the world's refugees who are permitted third-country resettlement come to the United States. "The United States admits more than all of the 18 other resettlement countries in the world combined," she notes.

"One of the biggest challenges for UNHCR these days," says UNHCR's Wendy Young, "is the growth in internally displaced persons, or IDPs. These are individuals in refugee-like situations: they fled war, they fled persecution, but they just haven't managed to cross an international border and therefore, the legal framework for refugee protection, the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not apply to IDPs. But many of their needs remain the same: protection, assistance, food, shelter, water, sanitation, prevention of sexual violence against women and children. So, UNHCR agreed to live up to this challenge last year and live up to the protection of IDPs."

Kelly Ryan adds, "The concentration of refugees is highest in Pakistan, where there's 2.6 million Afghans, but there are urgent refugee needs in Bangladesh, with some of the Burmese there, the Rohingya. I think if you look at the North Korean situation, it's hard to match the complete desperation of North Korean refugees who are scattered throughout Asia and Southeast Asia," she continued. "And if you look at some of the circumstances, for example this group we are taking from Burundi, who survived a massacre -- it's hard to imagine anything more horrible than watching your family members be macheted. So, these are victims of torture who will come to the U.S. this year."

"There are many regions around the world where UNHCR is monitoring quite closely because of growing instability in those regions," notes Wendy Young. "The one I would point to first is the region around Darfur. We're seeing that conflict start to ripple out across borders and now we're seeing unrest in Chad, for example. We're watching the Central African Republic closely. We're also concerned about situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And then there are the protracted refugee situations around the world that may not be in the headlines at the moment. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a perfect example, where more than three million people have lost their lives to conflict-related causes since the late 1980s."

Kelly Ryan notes, "Many of the world's refugees live in Africa, so we give a large percentage to Africa. 13,000 will arrive from East Africa alone this year. Refugees are resettled across the United States, and this is through a public-private partnership, ten resettlement agencies. And they meet together and are notified of who's arriving, and what their nationality is, what their religion is. And they together work to decide what would be the best resettlement community for that refugee. And it's been a tremendously successful program, and it's operating in 48 states."

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