Do you feel safe in your country? If so, you are very lucky. There are at least 175 million people in the world today who have been so hurt or scared that they were forced to leave the land where they were born. These people are refugees. Some refugees are tortured, their homes are burned and family members killed. Others are not allowed to work, so they cannot pay for a home or food. These refugees are being persecuted.
Some people are persecuted because they belong to religious or ethnic minorities within their country. This means that they are members of small communities with different beliefs and cultures from the other people in their country. Others are persecuted because their government does not like their political ideas. Some refugees have suffered a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood, while many are running away from war. Refugees are unable to find protection in their own country and so have to find it elsewhere. They may have left their country already and be afraid to go back because of a war or fear of persecution.
After World War II, a series of agreements called the Geneva Convention were made. These agreements affected the international law. One of these agreements defined what a refugee is and said that countries should recognize refugees and give them help. One reason the Geneva Convention set out to help refugees was the persecution of so many Jews who were forced to leave their homes during World War II.
The Jews were not the first refugees in history though. For centuries, people have had to flee their homes for various reasons. The Koran (the holy book of Islam) describes Muhammad and other refugees who fled from Mecca. In 1685, a group of people called the Huguenots had to leave their homes in France because they were persecuted for religious reasons. After World War I, a body called the International Refugee Organization was set up to help refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took over from the International Refugee Organization in 1951. It makes sure that refugees around the world have protection by law and helps them to solve their problems.
RECOGNIZING REFUGEES BY LAW
Millions of people around the world leave their homes and choose to live in other countries every year. There are many different reasons why they leave. For example, they may go looking for work in another country. This type of person is not a refugee.
Refugees leave their country because they have to, not because they choose to. Since 1951, these people have been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. Many countries support this organization. They accept people who are refugees from other countries and promise to help them. In 2002, Pakistan, Iraq, Germany, Tanzania and the United States took in the largest numbers of refugees across the world.
However, some countries do not want to accept refugees, even though most refugees return home when they can. They may refuse certain refugees entry to their country, for political or other reasons. Refugees do not decide to live in another country permanently and they mostly return home as soon as they can. Return is not always possible though, as the threat of persecution may still be there. If refugees have to live in a new country for a long time, they may no longer want to go home as the new country has become their home.
In order to be accepted as a refugee and to gain help from another country’s government, a person must first seek asylum. The government declares that the person is an asylum seeker and then considers his or her case. The government investigates whether the person is a true refugee. It finds out whether the person was persecuted, and whether it is impossible for him or her to return to the home country. If the person is found to be a refugee, refugee status is given and the refugee can live and work in that country.
CARING FOR REFUGEES
Refugees usually flee to the nearest country. But they often come from poorer parts of the world, so their neighbours cannot always afford to look after them. The UNHCR then provides food and shelter. Asylum seekers are usually not allowed to work in the country in which they are seeking refugee status. They may have to live in special accommodation that the government provides for them while it decides if they are a refugee or not.
Some countries place refugees in camps in remote areas or in detention centres away from the rest of the population. Refugees often find themselves the victims of discrimination from the new society they live in. Because some states keep them separate from the native population it is hard for refugees to feel a part of their new country.
Even refugees who are not kept separate from other people can find it difficult to fit in. Some countries expect them to learn the language and to live by the same culture as the native people. Other countries take a multi-cultural approach and refugees can adapt to the new culture slowly and in their own way. Refugees can add to the wealth and culture of their new land. They bring new social and cultural customs and can help people to understand and learn about other cultures.
Did you know?
• In 1981 a new UK law refused entry rights to people from certain British Commonwealth countries. These people now have to obtain an entry visa first. The law also said that it could change entry rules at any time in the future when the government thinks it necessary.
• The International Refugee Organization was founded after World War I when many different refugee groups were forced to flee their countries in Europe. Since World War II, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has taken the responsibility to protect refugees around the world.
• One of the first recorded groups of refugees in history was the Huguenots. They were a group of Protestants who fled from France in 1685 when their religious freedom was stopped.