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Who is a Refugee? - 2003-06-19

More than 13 million men, women and children around the world are officially registered as refugees. They have fled war and persecution for an uncertain future. Unlike migrants, they have not necessarily chosen to uproot their families and leave friends and relatives behind.

VOA Correspondent Laurie Kassman in Washington examines the question, Who is a refugee?

At the age of 30, Milton Taylor and his wife and children left their home in Liberia, and walked for six weeks in search of safety in neighboring Sierra Leone.

"I flee from Liberia because of what I call a senseless civil war, a rebel war that Charles Taylor brought to the country," he said. "And, I fear for my life and that of my family, and because we realize that people that were fighting were doing indiscriminate killing and unnecessary destruction of property and life. So we had to flee the nation."

That was back in 1990, during some of the worst days of Liberia's civil war.

"We passed by wild animals. We passed by dangerous, dangerous places that we actually would have never seen," Milton Taylor said. "We went through that. We passed over bodies of friends and relatives and other Liberians. And we walked through these things all the way to another country."

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Rupert Colville says that bold and risky decision turned Mr. Taylor and his family into refugees.

"A refugee is someone who is basically fleeing their home country, and crosses an international border into another country," he said. "And they are fleeing persecution for various reasons: Religion, political beliefs, ethnic groups, etc."

Mr. Taylor and his family found some safety in Sierra Leone, but rebel attacks there in 1991 forced them to flee again, this time to neighboring Guinea, where they eked out a living for the next 10 years. But animosity toward Liberian refugees forced Mr. Taylor to seek another safe haven.

UNHCR Spokesman Colville says the problems faced by Mr. Taylor in Guinea are not unique. He says international humanitarian laws demand that nations accept and protect refugees to the best of their ability. But some do not.

"That is critical, because you may be sending them back to death or torture or some nasty fate. In that aspect, it is an overriding of national sovereignty, countries have to accept you," he said. "And, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which 146 states have signed, there are a whole range of principles built around that minimum standard. But even countries that have not signed the convention are bound by key elements, including UNHCR's own statutes that U.N. members are bound to observe."

With help from the UNHCR, the Taylor family eventually arrived in the United States in 2001, and settled in the northeastern state of Rhode Island.

Mr. Colville says the definition of a refugee does not include people seeking better economic conditions. That, he says, would more accurately define a migrant, who crosses borders in search of better jobs.

"Usually, it is a question of choice for an immigrant," he said. "For refugees, it is a question of compulsion. They have been forced to flee. It is not a matter of choosing to make a better life somewhere."

Many refugees end up building a new life for their families outside their homeland. Others wait in refugee camps or third countries for repatriation, when the situation at home improves.

That is Ntaganda Nitiziharwa's dream. The 30-year-old Rwandan lives in Rhode Island, after arriving as a refugee nearly three years ago.

"I would like to go back to take also the experience I learned out [of the country], because I know I can help my people, in terms of education and economy," he said.

Mr. Nitiziharwa was a student in Egypt in 1993, when war broke out between Burundi, where he had grown up, and Rwanda where his parents were born.

"I was a son of refugees. My parents fled Rwanda in '60 after the massacres of 1959. I left Burundi as a refugee. I was born as refugee. I got scholarship to study in Egypt as a refugee," he said. "I had nowhere to go, not to Burundi, not to Rwanda, either. So I approached the UNHCR. They recognized me. They saw my situation, and accepted me, and resettled me to the United States."

While he waited more than a year to be processed for resettlement, Mr. Nitiziharwa survived on a U.N. allowance of $50 a month by sharing the housing and food costs with three other student-refugees.

The resettlement processing has slowed even more. UNHCR Spokesman Colville says the war on terrorism has spurred tougher screening procedures and a spreading suspicion of foreigners. He also complains about abuses of the system, from smuggling rackets to bogus asylum applicants, that make it tougher for genuine refugees to find a safe haven.