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World Refugee Day Hits Close to Home for Asia

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As the world marks the UN's 6th annual World Day for Refugees, we are solemnly reminded of 8.4 million persons of concern originating from Asia living without dignity, in miserable and impoverished refugee camps, dependent on handouts and unable to work.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

As the world marks the UN’s 6th annual World Day for Refugees, we are solemnly reminded of the huge population of refugees, and equally as important, internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who live in our region. There are 8.6 million refugees worldwide, with some 875,100 in Asia; however, a staggering 21 million people worldwide constitute a ‘population of concern’, which includes a wide range of displaced people.1 According to UNHCR, “Asia has not only been the main host of UNHCR’s total population of concern but also by far the main source… some 8.4 million persons originating from Asia were considered by UNHCR as being in need of international protection.”2

For each statistic, there is a harrowing story of a life put on hold without dignity, sometimes in miserable and impoverished refugee camps, dependent on handouts and unable to work. Each refugee, according to the UN definition, has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted,” for a variety of reasons, including armed conflict. A refugee is forced outside the country of his or her nationality, and an IDP is forced from home to a different area within his or her country of nationality. In both cases, migration is not undertaken by choice, a fact that host countries must remember. Equally tragic is the statelessness within countries, where people are unable to claim any legal citizenship due to a variety of factors.

UNHCR celebrated the World Day for Refugees in Bangkok on Wednesday, with a line up of representatives from a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations, all attempting to draw attention to the plight of refugees. Ironically, the event that discussed the poor conditions of refugee camps was held in an extremely luxurious environment, though the representatives’ concern seemed sincere. There was much praise heaped on Thailand for hosting millions of refugees over the last century. Just recently, as many as 216 Karen refugees fled from the Karen state of Burma to Thailand due to persecution by the Burmese military, but were denied entry according to the Irrawaddy. The Karen Refugees Committee said that most of the refugees were women and children. Remarkably, FORUM-ASIA recently reiterated its condemnation of the government of Thailand for the forced repatriation of 163 Hmong Lao asylum seekers in June. Thailand has done a lot for people seeking shelter within its borders, but they must do more to ensure the country does not violate the principle of non-refoulement, or of not forcing refugees back to their countries of origin.

Refugees and IDPs face violence, starvation, the constant fear of persecution and torture in their home states and regions; to be sure, these trials define their status. Such circumstances make UNHCR’s people of concern some of the most vulnerable in the world, and one must remember them, be it the World Day for Refugees or any other day of the year.

1 2006 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons,
2UNHCR Statistical Year Book 2005