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World Refugee Day Highlights Plight of Millions of Refugees - 2004-06-20

In marking World Refugee Day, the United Nations is highlighting the need to find lasting solutions for millions of refugees and displaced people, many of whom have been languishing in camps for decades with little or no hope of ever going home.

The U.N. refugee agency says there was a sharp drop in the number of refugees and displaced persons around the world last year. Still, the agency continues to help more than 17 million people who have fled their homes because of war and persecution.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says refugees often are unjustly thought of as freeloaders. He says people become refugees and asylum seekers not because they want to, but because they have to. He says refugees are not a threat. Indeed, they are the ones who are under threat.

"Despite the criticism that falls on asylum seekers in some rich countries, most asylum seekers and refugees are in poor countries near the lands where they fled," he said. "They need assistance and protection and U.N. agencies need the support from donors to ensure that refugees can be properly aided in the poor states where most of them live so they themselves do not need to or feel the urge to perhaps flee to a more developed country where they can be properly assisted."

Mr. Kessler says most refugees want to return to their own homes, even if they have been devastated by war. For example, he notes more than three million Afghans have returned home since the overthrow of the Taleban two and one half years ago. He says important refugee returns also are occurring in places such as Angola, Burundi and Sierra Leone.

In addition, he says the UNHCR is planning to repatriate millions of refugees to nine African countries over the next five years. He says this would reduce the refugee caseload on the continent by two-thirds.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kessler says, some refugees will never be able to go home. And, for them other permanent solutions must be found.

"When people cannot go back, we try to encourage countries to offer local settlements so that refugees can integrate, they can settle locally in the country of first asylum, given land to farm and/or the right to work," said Mr. Kessler. "As well, of course, when repatriation nor local integration is not possible, we like to see resettlement transfer to a third country be considered."

Special events focusing on the plight of refugees are taking place around the world. They include traditional dance and music performances, sports competitions, film festivals and debates. In their different ways, all the events are designed to draw attention to the need to find lasting solutions for the world's refugees.