45th Session Issues
History & General Overview
Famine, civil wars, and violation of human rights contribute to the world's refugee crises today. As a result of these factors the total number of people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge in other countries has been estimated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to be about 18 million today. The dilemma of refugees becomes a very complex matter for countries receiving the refugees as well as the refugees themselves. Recipient countries who are mostly developing countries with struggling economies fear more strain on domestic social services, such as welfare, education and health as well as the cultural conflicts which may rise between the local population and the newcomers. Refugees themselves on the other hand have to go through the difficult process of adopting to a foreign culture, learning a new language and surviving in a new environment.
"The claim of refugees to protection is enshrined in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights." Article 14 of the declaration states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." The United Nations High Commission for Refugees was established in 1950 and the Commissioner entrusted with protection of "any person who is outside the country of his/her nationality because of a well founded fear of persecution by reason of his/her race, religion, nationality or political opinion, and is unwilling or unable to avail him/herself of the protection of his/her own government."
The origin for this definition derived from the vast dislocation of people in Europe after WWII. The UN definition becomes a rather limited one because it was designed for Europe in the post World War II stage and it results in "two categories of refugees: those strictly defined on a case-by-case basis who come under the UN definition, and the other, large groups who flee from their country who do not possess the right to seek asylum."
Many countries are reluctant to give refugee status to a large group of people because then they are obliged to give them refuge or find a place to locate them. The issue of refugees also becomes very political because allies refuse to acknowledge refugee status to groups escaping prosecution from each others' territory. This trend was more evident during the Cold War. The post Cold War era provides new opportunities for United Nations to count on more international cooperation in order to address the refugee crises of the world today.
Regional Overview Of Refugee Crises & UN Involvement.
During the 1980's Pakistan and Iran hosted about 5 million Afghan refugees as a result of the former Soviet Unions invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the recent civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s there has been sizable repatriation by refugees from the camps in Pakistan back to Afghanistan. The numbers repatriated will most likely increase if the UN manages to solve the civil conflict in this country. "In the former Yugoslavia, UNHCR is currently assisting over 3 million people affected by the conflict." In the Horn of Africa, the agency is struggling to meet the needs of approximately 1.2 million refugees and returnees in Ethiopia, 400,000 in Kenya, 730,000 refugees in Sudan, and 20,000 in Djibouti.
"The increasing demand on UNHCR's expertise has been accompanied by enormous growth in its budget, which in 1992 exceeded $1 billion dollars." Generally refugees tend to cross international borders as a result there has been a shared responsibility between governments and international organizations to deal with refugee situations and there has been codified international law dealing with refugees.
"Primary responsibility for refugee protection and assistance rests with the UNHCR." In addition, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides education, health relief, and social services to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The UN Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) has responsibility for providing assistance to Cambodians displaced along the Thailand Cambodian border.
Other UN agencies, such as the World Food Program (WFP), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are also called upon to provide expertise in matters related to their areas of interest. In addition, NGOs have traditionally played an important role in the implementation of programs for refugees.
Women & Children As Refugees
Women and Children make up a large percentage of the refugee population of the world today. This factor becomes an important consequence which the UN needs to address in dealing with the world's refugee crises. Women and children account for 70% of a normal population in developing countries but make up 80% of refugees worldwide"
"For most refugee and displaced women, the refugee experience requires continuing response to change, including the need to cope with traumatic new circumstances. Forced to leave their homes because of persecution and violence, the women must often cope with new environment, new language, new social roles, new community structure, new familial relationships and new problems." In regards to security and personal safety, women are at the most vulnerable position in the refugee experience. Having lost their husbands and other family members during flight or perhaps during wars makes them especially susceptible to physical abuse and rape.
There is also the problem of structure of refugee camps which forces women to share close living space with strangers and sometimes members of different clans who are former enemies and this again jeopardizes women's safety. When crossing the international border and fleeing their homelands women and children are subject to harassment by border guards on both side. The refugee experience also changes traditional gender roles which puts women as heads of their household because they have lost their spouses. This means that women need to adapt to the sudden role of being the financial provider for their households. An essential role that the UN could play would be to provide economic assistance to widowed women with children and help them adapt to their new situation.
Possible Solutions To The Refugee Crisis
There have been some methods taken in order to solve different refugee situations which have been somewhat successful and others which have failed and need further attention by United Nations. The most desirable policy has been to prevent situations that create refugee crises from the very beginning. This method would require a tremendous amount of humanitarian support and financial assistance from the international community but with UN help could be successful.
The second approach in dealing with refugee crises is considered to be "voluntary repatriation" of refugees. This requires the United Nations to assure that the refugees are attracted to go home, that their safety is guaranteed and that they are wanted back home provided that, this method could be effective in solving refugee situations. In 1992 alone, an average of 46,000 refugees per week voluntarily returned to their home countries with some international assistance. More than 365,000 Cambodians were repatriated in 1992-93 and similar voluntary repatriations have occurred in Central America and Africa. Repatriation to Afghanistan would have been far larger if the country had not fallen into a continuing bloody civil war.
But repatriation requires significant resources for reconstruction or the problem can not be contained. One last method which has been used to address refugee problems has been military intervention or "humanitarian intervention," This approach is least desired and most unlikely but has occurred in the past year with US involvement in Somalia and in Haiti. The Haiti operation is so far successful, but the Somalia intervention is considered to be a failure. Therefore there is no guarantees that "humanitarian intervention" would serve as an effective method for UN to address refugee crises.
Legal and Political Issues