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UN: Millions of Refugees Languish in Camps for Decades

More than two-thirds of the world's refugees, some six million people, are living in limbo. Many have been in exile for decades with no hope of going home. They are trapped in squalid refugee camps and communities, struggling to survive in remote, insecure parts of the world. The UN refugee agency recently convened an international conference aimed at seeking durable solutions to these protracted refugee situations.

The burden of hosting refugees falls almost exclusively to developing countries and in particular, to Africa. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the international community has not done enough to share that burden.

"Refugee situations do not start out protracted. When refugees first arrive they are often accompanied by a great deal of international attention and support. As time passes and solutions are not found, international attention and, sometimes, international solidarity tends to diminish," he said.

And, said Guterres, host countries are left to absorb and take care of large numbers of refugees on their own, when they can ill afford to do so. He said competition for scarce resources such as water and work opportunities can cause relations between the refugees and host communities to become strained. He said it can take years for the environment to recover from the pressure put upon it by refugees.

"Refugees in protracted situations are exposed to a range of inter-linked and worsening social ills. As always, women and girls are particularly vulnerable. And as time passes and resources become more scarce, physical and sexual violence against them will tend to increase. Protracted refugee situations can also lead to problems of statelessness," said Guterres.

Finding durable solutions for these people is very difficult. They cannot go home because their countries of origin are at war or are affected by serious human rights violations. Only a small proportion of them have a chance of being resettled to a third country. In many cases, their first country of asylum will not allow them to fully integrate or become citizens.

Tanzania is one of the few exceptions. It granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees who fled civil war in their country in 1972. Tanzania has experienced periodic waves of refugees. And, Prime Minister, Mizango Peter Pinda said he fears another from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as fighting between the government and rebels intensifies.

"Thousands of people, particularly elderly, women and children have been forced out of their homelands. If the UN will not act, and act fast, to bring to an end the fighting in the DRC, Tanzania will soon experience another big influx of refugees. That is why I said the problem of refugees in Tanzania is cyclical. The same situation of political instability is happening in Somalia, in Darfur, Sudan, in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Pinda.

James Milner is assistant professor of political science at Carleton University.

"Traditional solutions for refugees have really change…As it has proven difficult to ensure stable peace in the country of origin, refugees who remain in exile for 10, 15, 20 years are not able to find the types of solutions that we normally expect them to find," said Milner.

He added that nations need to develop a consensus on how to deal with protracted refugees.

"The fact that it is not just a refugee problem. That, it is a problem that is linked very much with the challenges of peace building, of ensuring security and stability, of ensuring development. And, how we can build on an understanding of the more holistic nature of the problem to try and find solutions that benefit, not only refugees, but regions and the states that host them as well," he said.

Emeritus Professor at the University of Notre Dame, Gil Loescher, said important lessons can be learned from the lengthy exiles of Indochinese refugees 30 or 40 years ago and that of Central American refugees in the 1980s. He said solutions were found when a consensus was reached among the countries of origin responsible for expelling these refugees and the countries of first asylum.

"Not every situation can be resolved by a comprehensive plan of action within regions of exile. But, some can and particularly when strong connections can be made between protracted refugee situations and either security issues or in terms of considering refugees within the context of an overall peace settlement," said Loescher.

Representatives who attended the UNHCR conference agreed that protracted situations should not be allowed to fester. They said repatriation was the preferred option. But, when this was not possible, then efforts must be made to try to resettle refugees in third countries or to reintegrate them into the countries of asylum.

Barring that, they said self-reliance should be promoted among refugees to enhance their prospects for successful repatriation or resettlement. They added political will is a main pre-condition for finding durable solutions.