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UN:  Nearly 20 Million Women, Children Displaced From Homes - 2002-06-20

The United Nations refugee agency is highlighting the plight of women refugees, as it marks World Refugee Day Thursday. The day is set aside annually by the United Nations to call attention to the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes.

Refugee agency officials said there are 20 million people uprooted from their homes worldwide, and the vast majority of them are women and children.

Millicent Matuli, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said women refugees have to care for themselves and their children under conditions that are often desperate. "We would like to honor refugee women whose courage and determination have been extremely commendable. They go through immense difficulties during their flight to asylum and even while they are in asylum they face difficulties," she said.

The UNHCR said refugees, especially women and children, are frequently taken advantage of by criminal networks. There are also occasions, it said, when the refugees are exploited by people who are supposed to help them. Last year, there were allegations of sexual abuse of refugees by aid workers in camps in western Africa. To combat this, the agency said, it has stepped up efforts to safeguard refugees in the camps.

Ms. Matuli said the UNHCR has also noted that many countries that were once receptive to refugees are now closing their doors to them. "One of the major concerns we have is the declining willingness to grant asylum. We are seeing that throughout Europe and we have begun to see trends also in Africa," she said.

The UNHCR said Asia is the continent that has the most refugees, primarily because of the years of conflict in Afghanistan. But agency officials add that since the fall of the Taleban as many as one million Afghans have returned home. However, about two and a half million Afghans are still refugees.