In marking this year's observance of World Refugee Day, the U.N. refugee agency is warning more countries are closing their doors to refugees because of growing intolerance and a fear of terrorism. The agency says genuine asylum seekers are being turned away and refused a safe haven at a time when an increasing number of people are fleeing violence, persecution and oppression. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The U.N. refugee agency says a growing number of countries around the world are hardening their attitudes toward refugees and refusing to grant them asylum. This is mainly occurring in the industrialized world. But, is also becoming a problem in some developing countries.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler says intolerance, xenophobia or fear of foreigners and racism is on the increase. He says many governments confuse asylum seekers, who are fleeing for their lives, with economic migrants, who are in search of a better future.
"What is important to remember is that the vast majority of refugees are people who have been forced from their homes by violence," Spindler said. "If we look at the main countries of origin of refugees, these are Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are all countries that have undergone conflicts recently or are in the middle of a conflict. So, the impression that refugees are somehow ogres or people who are trying to take advantage of our generosity is completely wrong. Most people are fleeing desperate situations in which their life is at risk."
Spindler says countries in North America and Europe are under the false impression they are hosting huge numbers of refugees. He says the vast majority is in poor countries.
A new report shows the number of refugees rose by 14 percent last year to nearly 10 million. And, it finds 24.5 million people have been uprooted by conflict inside their own countries.
Despite this dismal picture, Spindler says there are pockets of hope. He says last year, more than 700,000 refugees returned home after years of living in exile. He says it is this message of hope High Commissioner Antonio Guterres wants to get across on this World Refugee Day.
"The reason why the High Commissioner is in south Sudan is to remind the world that despite the horrors of Darfur, the critical situation in Iraq, and displacement in many other parts of the world, there is still hope," Spindler said. "And, people are returning to countries that have been devastated by years of conflict."
Refugee spokesman Spindler notes it is one thing to get the refugees home. It is quite another to keep them home. He says it is important that the international community support post-conflict reconstruction so these returns are sustainable and durable.
He says it would be tragic to have a return to conflict and find that people, once again, are on the move.