A U.S.-based advocacy group says the number of refugees worldwide is growing, and that nations receiving refugees must do more to welcome and integrate the new arrivals. The refugee totals estimated by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants differ sharply from figures recently issued by the United Nations.
The head of the group, Lavinia Limon, says refugees number 12 million worldwide, up from 11.5 million last year. She says the largest concentrations of refugees are in Africa and the Middle East and that Iraqis fleeing sectarian violence account for much of this year's overall increase. "Prior to the U.S. intervention [in Iraq in 2003], it was feared that tens of thousands of refugees might be fleeing Iraq. But that did not happen right after the intervention. It is now happening in slow motion," she said.
Limon says vast numbers of Iraqis have fled to Jordan and Syria, where they often get a chilly reception. "Syria has begun to require residency authorization, so many refugees are forced to live underground. Jordan is not granting refugee status to refugees, and refusing entry to many," she said.
The committee's research director, Gregory Chen, says poor treatment of refugees is a shameful global phenomenon. "By all measures, refugee protection has deteriorated worldwide. Far too many governments force refugees back into unsafe conditions in their home countries, where they face persecution, conflict and fighting. Some governments 'warehouse' [confine] refugees to make conditions so terrible that refugees are forced to return to their home countries. This is a terrible violation of international law and the basic principle that you never force somebody back to unsafe conditions," he said.
In its 45th annual report, the committee graded nations on their treatment of refugees based on four criteria: the protection afforded to refugees, the access refugees have to the judicial system, to what extent refugees are allowed freedom of movement, and to what extent they may earn a livelihood. Nations given failing grades include China, Malaysia, Iran, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Burundi, and Tanzania. Those earning high marks include Canada, Venezuela, Ecuador, Algeria, and Benin.
The editor of the report, Merrill Smith, says some nations, like Lebanon, showed signs of improvement in their treatment of refugees. "In Lebanon, in June, the minister of labor lifted a decree that had banned Palestinian refugees from more than 72 professions. This is a very important step in a country like Lebanon that has viewed any step toward giving Palestinian refugees their civil liberties as tantamount to implantation of refugees," he said.
The committee praised the United States for allowing refugees full freedom of movement and the right to earn a living, but criticized it for the difficulty many refugees from Haiti and elsewhere have in attaining refugee status in the first place.
The report by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants comes less than a week after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued its annual report, which found the number of refugees worldwide at a 26-year-low, at eight-point-four million people. What accounts for the much higher estimate by the U.S. committee? "We count Palestinians, and they [UNHCR] do not. UNHCR's mandate does not include Palestinians. We look at all the factors. We believe they are refugees; we count them as refugees," said Limon.
She says she was struck by the outpouring of international aid and concern in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the United States as well as the 2004 Asian tsunami. She says the plight of many refugees is even more challenging than that of disaster survivors, since refugees live in foreign lands at the mercy of governments that may or may not view them as welcome.