Growing Numbers of Refugees
MOST of human history has been marred by wars, famines, and persecution. As a result, there have always been people who needed asylum. Historically, nations and peoples have given asylum to those in need.
Laws providing asylum were honored by the ancient Aztecs, Assyrians, Greeks, Hebrews, Muslims, and others. Plato, the Greek philosopher, wrote more than 23 centuries ago: “The foreigner, isolated from his fellow countrymen and his family, should be the subject of greater love on the part of men and of the gods. So all precautions must be taken in order that no wrong be committed against foreigners.”
During the 20th century, the number of refugees has soared. In an effort to care for the 1.5 million refugees remaining from World War II, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1951. It had a projected life span of three years, based on the idea that the existing refugees would soon become integrated into the societies in which they had found asylum. After that, it was thought, the organization could be disbanded.
Over the decades, however, the number of refugees rose relentlessly. By 1975 their number had reached 2.4 million. In 1985 the figure was 10.5 million. By 1995 the number of people receiving protection and assistance from UNHCR had soared to 27.4 million!
Many hoped that the post-Cold War era would open the way to resolve the global refugee problem; it did not. Instead, nations have splintered along historical or ethnic lines, resulting in conflict. As wars raged, people fled, knowing that their governments could not or would not protect them. In 1991, for example, nearly two million Iraqis spilled into neighboring countries. Since then, an estimated 735,000 refugees have fled the former Yugoslavia. Then, in 1994, civil war in Rwanda forced more than half the country’s 7.3 million people to flee their homes. About 2.1 million Rwandans sought refuge in nearby African countries.
Why Is the Problem Getting Worse?
There are several factors that contribute to the growing number of refugees. In some places, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, national governments have collapsed. This has left matters in the hands of armed militias who plunder the countryside without restraint, causing panic and flight.
In other places, conflict is based on complex ethnic or religious differences, in which a primary objective of the warring parties is to rout civilian populations. Concerning the war in the former Yugoslavia, a UN representative lamented in mid-1995: “For many people it’s quite difficult to understand the causes of this war: who’s fighting, the reasons for fighting. There’s a mass exodus from one side and then three weeks later there’s a mass exodus from the other side. It’s very hard to follow even for people who have to follow it.”
Highly destructive modern weapons—multiple-launch rockets, missiles, artillery, and the like—add to the carnage and enlarge the arena of conflict. The result: ever more refugees. In recent times about 80 percent of the world’s refugees have fled from developing countries to neighboring countries that are also developing and ill-equipped to care for those seeking asylum.
In many conflicts lack of food contributes to the problem. When people are starving, perhaps because relief convoys are blocked, they are forced to move. The New York Times notes: “In places like the Horn of Africa, the combination of drought and war has so savaged the land that it can no longer provide a livelihood. Whether the hundreds of thousands who leave are fleeing starvation or war is academic.”
The Unwanted Millions
While the idea of asylum is honored in principle, the huge number of refugees dismays the nations. The situation finds a parallel in ancient Egypt. When Jacob and his family sought refuge in Egypt to escape the ravages of a seven-year famine, they were welcomed. Pharaoh gave them “the very best of the land” in which to dwell.—Genesis 47:1-6.
As time passed, however, the Israelites became numerous, “so that the land got to be filled with them.” The Egyptians now responded with harshness, yet “the more [the Egyptians] would oppress them, the more [the Israelites] would multiply and the more they kept spreading abroad, so that they felt a sickening dread as a result of the sons of Israel.”—Exodus 1:7, 12.
Similarly, nations today feel “a sickening dread” as the number of refugees continues to multiply. A major reason for their concern is economic. It costs a lot of money to feed, clothe, house, and protect millions of refugees. Between 1984 and 1993, the yearly spending of UNHCR rose from $444 million to $1.3 billion. Most of the money is donated by wealthier nations, some of whom are struggling with economic problems of their own. Donor nations sometimes complain: ‘We are hard-pressed to help the homeless on our own streets. How can we be responsible for the homeless of the entire planet, especially when the problem is more likely to grow than diminish?’
What Complicates Matters?
Those refugees who do reach a rich nation frequently find that their situation has been complicated by the many thousands of people who have migrated to the same country for economic reasons. These economic migrants are not refugees fleeing war or persecution or famine. Instead, they have come seeking a better life—a life free from poverty. Because they often pretend to be refugees, beleaguering the asylum networks with false claims, they make it harder for genuine refugees to get a fair hearing.*
The influx of refugees and immigrants has been likened to two streams that have flowed side by side into wealthy countries for years. However, increasingly strict immigration laws have blocked the stream of economic immigrants. Thus, they have become a part of the refugee stream, and this stream has overflowed to create a flood.
Knowing that it might take several years to examine their asylum request, economic migrants reason that they are in a win-win situation. If their request for asylum is accepted, they win, since they can remain in a healthier economic setting. If their request is rejected, they also win, since they will have earned some money and learned some skills to take home with them.
As increasing numbers of refugees, along with impostors, stream their way, many countries are pulling in the welcome mat and slamming the door. Some have closed their borders to those in flight. Other countries have introduced laws and procedures that just as effectively deny entry to the refugee. Still other countries have forcibly returned refugees to the lands from which they fled. Observes one UNHCR publication: “The relentless increase in numbers—both of genuine refugees and of economic migrants—has imposed a serious strain on the 3,500-year-old tradition of asylum, bringing it close to collapse.”
Hatred and Fear
Adding to the problems of the refugee is the specter of xenophobia—fear and hatred of foreigners. In many countries people believe that outsiders threaten their national identity, culture, and jobs. Such fears sometimes express themselves in violence. Refugees magazine says: “The European continent sees one racist attack every three minutes—and reception centers for asylum-seekers are all too often the target.”
A poster in central Europe expresses deep hostility, a hostility that is increasingly echoed in many lands of the earth. Its message of venom targets the foreigner: “They are a disgusting and painful abscess on the body of our nation. An ethnic group without any culture, moral or religious ideals, a nomad mob only robbing and stealing. Dirty, full of lice, they occupy the streets and railway stations. Let them pack their dirty tatters and leave forever!”
Most refugees, of course, would like nothing better than to “leave forever.” They yearn to go home. Their hearts ache to live a peaceful, normal life with family and friends. But they have no home to go to.
In 1993, governments in Western Europe alone spent $11.6 billion to process and receive those seeking asylum.
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The Plight of Refugees
“Did you know that hundreds of thousands of refugee children go to sleep hungry every night? Or that only one refugee child out of eight has ever been to school? Most of these children have never been to the movies, or the park, much less to a museum. Many grow up behind barbed wire or in isolated camps. They’ve never seen a cow or a dog. Too many refugee children think green grass is something to eat, not something upon which to romp and run. Refugee children are the saddest part of my job.”—Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
U.S. Navy photo
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Jesus Was a Refugee
Joseph and Mary resided in Bethlehem with their son, Jesus. Astrologers from the East came with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After their departure an angel appeared to Joseph, saying: “Get up, take the young child and its mother and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I give you word; for Herod is about to search for the young child to destroy it.”—Matthew 2:13.
Quickly the three of them sought asylum in a foreign country—they became refugees. Herod was furious that the astrologers did not report to him about the location of the One foretold to become king of the Jews. In a futile attempt to kill Jesus, he ordered his men to kill all the young boys in and around Bethlehem.
Joseph and his family remained in Egypt until God’s angel again appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel said: “Get up, take the young child and its mother and be on your way into the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the soul of the young child are dead.”—Matthew 2:20.
Evidently, Joseph intended to settle in Judea, where they were living before their flight to Egypt. But he was warned in a dream that it would be dangerous to do so. Thus the threat of violence once more influenced their lives. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus traveled north to Galilee and settled in the town of Nazareth.
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In recent years millions of refugees have fled for their lives to other countries
Top left: Albert Facelly/Sipa Press
Top right: Charlie Brown/Sipa Press
Bottom: Farnood/Sipa Press
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Boy on left: UN PHOTO 159243/J. Isaac