[Note]: This diary is the next installment of 10 Stories the World Should Hear More About as identified by the United Nations for 2006, a Booman Tribune Group Project suggested and coordinated by ManEegee.

They are far from the media spotlight – in Asia, in Europe, in Africa.

They have been there for years – perhaps decades.  

There are millions of them.

“They” are people who have been displaced from their homes due to armed violence, coups, ethnic cleansing, human rights violations, wars.

They suffer as a result of their ethnicity, politics, religion, language or culture.

They are often called refugees, but given the vagaries of national and international laws and political intentions they are sometimes called internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers, or simply illegal immigrants.  The way they are defined drastically impacts what   protections and services are, at least theoretically, available to them.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees ( UNHCR) describes 33 so-called protracted refugee situations, which they define as groups of 25,000 people or more who have been in exile longer than five years.  This definition eliminates groups such as the 21,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar (Burma) to Bangladesh over a decade ago.  It also excludes the oldest and largest refugee situation – the Palestinians -which is handled through a different bureaucratic entity: The United Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. ( UNRWA ). The UN categorizes more than half of the world’s 9.2 million refugees as “protracted” and estimates that the average length of refugee situations is 17 years.

International law pertaining to refugees derives from a number of sources: The 4th Geneva Convention of 1949 , the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and subsequent protocols.  The specific situation of refugees in Africa was also addressed at the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention. These repeated iterations of policy reveal the intractability of the problem and the elusiveness of a solution.

A refugee is defined as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Since 1951, this definition has been broadened-in both official and informal ways. Notably, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), extended the definition to include people fleeing in small groups or en masse from a collective danger, such as insecurity or war, rather than treating each individual on a case-by-case basis.

An Internally Displaced Person, a legal and bureaucratically distinct entity, is defined as person who has also fled his or her home because of conflict but has not crossed an international border. He or she remains under the jurisdiction of national authorities and thus is not a refugee. IDPs do not benefit from any specific protection under international law.

People fleeing from armed conflict are provided special protections under other portions of the Geneva Convention if they cross international boundaries. Here, too, people fleeing for their lives too often get caught up in legal and semantic hell.  If for instance, the situation from which people are fleeing is not considered a war, neighboring countries have no obligation to accept the refugees.   So if a conflict is considered, say, an “anti-terrorism” operation, the refugees can be turned back at the border, causing them to be IDPs and forcing them back into the horrific situation from which they were fleeing in the first place.

Humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders are, at times, at loggerheads with UNHCR.  UNHCR’s role is complicated, ironically enough, by considerations the United Nations must make with regard to its peacekeeping activities – which make them less inclined to declare a situation a “war.” Still, UNHCR has over 6,000 staff members working to assist millions of refugees worldwide.

Under international law, refugees have three options available to them: voluntary repatriation, integration into the host country, and resettlement into a third country. In reality, their options are limited.  

Forced repatriation, though illegal, occurs regularly. Third countries are not often enthused about receiving large numbers of immigrants.  Integration in to the host country presents myriad cultural and socio-economic problems.
Refugee camps are often attacked by local armies or militia, causing people to flee from one camp to another.  Large food shipments are at times hijacked.  Malnutrition, illness, and lack of sanitation are common problems. Situations can become so dangerous that humanitarian organizations are forced to abandon the refugees.

The day to day realities for protracted refugees vary from difficult to horrendous depending on where they are.  Russian-speaking ethnic Armenians,who fled Azerbaijan, are generally safe, but face incredible difficulties finding jobs and in integrating socially in Armenia.  Refugees in Bangladesh are confined to camps and fear forced repatriation to Myanmar.  Refugees in parts of Africa are subject to violence and malnutrition, facing a daily choice between staying in the camps and risking attack while waiting for food aid to arrive or traveling on foot through insecure territory.  

The scope and complexity of this problem are more than dozens of diaries can cover. The extent of the human misery is more than the imagination is willing to absorb or than the human heart can bear. Millions upon millions of souls – the young, the frail and the elderly – live lives of fear, of danger, of deprivation. Out of the spotlight — and out of our awareness.

The humanitarian groups and bureaucratic entities that provide assistance cannot begin to ameliorate the situation as long as nations use the refugees as political pawns and as long as the rest of us – through ignorance or apathy – fail to demand better for our fellow man.

The Doctors Without Borders website is a wealth of information about the various refugee calamities our fellow humans are currently enduring, and also provides information on how to donate to relief efforts.

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