Global refugee numbers grow, funding falls as world marks 50th anniversary of refugee law

from US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Published on 19 Jun 2001
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Cuts in funding to international aid agencies are threatening the health and safety of millions of refugees around the world, creating new perils for populations already vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, and violence, according to a report released today by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR).
The worldwide refugee population last year increased to 14.5 million people "1 million more refugees than two years ago" according to the World Refugee Survey 2001, USCR's annual assessment of refugee conditions around the world. At the same time, the main international agency responsible for refugee care and protection, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), suffered a serious funding shortfall of approximately $100 million.

As the world this year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the landmark international refugee law known as the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, UNHCR faces additional funding cutbacks that threaten to cripple the agency and leave millions of refugees without basic services.

"The funding cuts are a further blow to refugees who have survived the trauma of fleeing their homes and seeing their lives and communities destroyed," said Jeff Drumtra, senior policy analyst for USCR. "These people are now being deprived of basic programs they need to live in safety and dignity."

The World Refugee Survey 2001 reports that in addition to the refugees who have fled across borders, some 20 to 24 million people are internally displaced within their own countries and suffer the same deprivations as refugees. The USCR report finds that seven countries had each produced a million or more uprooted people by the end of last year: Sudan, Afghanistan, Angola, Congo-Kinshasa, Colombia, Iraq, and Burundi. Additionally, some 4 million Palestinian refugees remain in the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly 40 percent of all refugees and displaced persons are in Africa, the world's most impoverished continent.

The drop in donations to UNHCR and other agencies last year forced aid workers in many parts of the world to choose between providing food and water, proper sanitation, or adequately protected housing to the refugees and displaced people under their care.

In Ethiopia, programs to alert Somali refugees to landmine dangers as they prepared to return home were canceled because of lack of funding.

In Pakistan, 35,000 Afghan refugees languished for months at a site without latrines and water systems when funding shortfalls slowed the construction of a new camp.

In Lebanon, many seriously ill Palestinian refugees failed to receive adequate medical care when assistance budgets could not pay their medical bills.The rights and protection laid out in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which has been signed by 137 countries, were ignored by some nations that closed their borders to refugees. Additionally, many displaced populations were victims of attacks by their own governments.

Sudanese government planes bombed civilian and humanitarian sites more than 160 times last year, targeting relief planes, hospitals, schools, and hungry villagers lined up for emergency food distribution.

Colombia's internally displaced people "those driven from their homes but remaining within the country's borders as a result of the decades-old civil war" rose to a staggering 2.1 million. The estimates include farmers in the Putumayo region uprooted from their homes because U.S.-funded aerial fumigation rendered their land unusable.

Chechens attempting to flee their country faced harassment or detainment at Russian checkpoints; men of military age were beaten, tortured, and "disappeared."

This year's 306-page World Refugee Survey reviews refugee conditions and government policies affecting refugees and displaced persons in 131 countries worldwide.

"With the establishment of the UN Refugee Convention fifty years ago, the international community took a critical step forward in recognizing the importance of protecting refugees, who are among the world's most vulnerable populations," said Bill Frelick, policy director for USCR. "But it is essential that signatories to the Convention continue to honor their commitment to refugees in practice as well as in principle."

The U.S. Committee for Refugees is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that works for the protection and assistance of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons around the world.


Caroline Brennan

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