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US Group Highlights Plight of World's Refugees


A U.S. humanitarian advocacy group says in a report the number of refugees around the world continues to grow. It says refugees are facing mistreatment and a lack of assistance in dozens of countries. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, the report was issued on the eve of World Refugee Day Friday.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, or USCRI, estimates the number of refugees has increased in the last year to more than 14 million people worldwide. Much of the recent growth comes from vast numbers of Iraqis, more than two million in all, who continue to flee violence and bloodshed that has gripped the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Most Iraqi refugees have settled in Jordan and Syria, where they are prohibited from working legally, according to USCRI President Lavinia Limon.

"You have 40 percent of the professional class of Iraq who have left the country," Limon said. "How many teachers, doctors, engineers, who speak the same language, who have common culture and religion to Syria and Jordan, and if they were allowed to work they would be contributing to those economies, instead of being engaged in underground work where they are exploited?"

Limon was speaking on Capitol Hill. She was joined by several U.S. lawmakers who accused the Bush administration of failing to do its part to welcome refugees from Iraq, especially those who once served as translators for U.S. troops and contractors performing missions in Iraq.

"When you look at a country like Sweden, that has nine million people, and in 2007 alone relocated 18,000 Iraqis, and then you look at the United States, which has relocated around 5,000 [Iraqis] since 2003, you wonder as to the commitment our country has made to take care of people that we put at risk," said Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.

The U.S. State Department says it aims to relocate 12,000 Iraqi refugees this year and is processing applications as quickly as possible.

In its 2008 World Refugee Survey, USCRI lists nine countries it deems the world's "worst places for refugees." They include Bangladesh for its treatment of Rohingya refugees, China for its spurning of people fleeing North Korea, Russia for returning some refugees from Uzbekistan, and Thailand for expelling tens of thousands of Burmese refugees.

The report also criticizes many European nations for making it difficult for refugees to gain entry, as well as Kenya and other countries for confining vast numbers of refugees to sprawling, semi-permanent camps - a practice USCRI refers to as "warehousing."

"The question now is: are we really protecting refugees by keeping them in camps at all? We saw what happened to the Darfurian refugees in Chad," said Merrill Smith, who edited USCRI's 2008 survey. "They were attacked repeatedly. Camps become notoriously infiltrated by guerrilla forces. It is an inhuman situation. It is not an appropriate response to refugee protection."

The report does note some encouraging signs, including the formation of coalitions in Israel to advocate on behalf of refugees from Sudan's Darfur region, and similar pro-refugee initiatives in Thailand, Tanzania, and elsewhere.

USCRI argues that refugee rights are human rights, and that all nations have a duty to accept and look after people fleeing violence and danger in other lands. The organization acknowledges that burdens are inevitably placed on host countries, but that those costs must be defrayed through financial contributions and other assistance from the broader international community.