Observing the First World Refugee Day: June 20, 2001


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Feah lived with her mother, father, three younger brothers and one younger sister in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. She was thirteen years old the day armed rebel soldiers suddenly arrived at the family’s plantation in 1998. Feah and the younger children were collecting water from a nearby stream when they saw the men approach the plantation. Frightened, they hid, and for hours they could hear cries coming from the house. When the soldiers left, the children found that their mother had been killed and their father was nowhere to be found. Terrified, Feah took her young siblings and walked for seven days and nights before finally reaching the safety of a refugee camp in the neighboring country of Guinea.

Every day, all over the world, children like Feah, as well as women, men, and elderly people, are uprooted from their homes and forced out of their countries by persecution, human rights abuses, violence, and war. From Sierra Leone to Chechnya, from Afghanistan to Colombia, crises of human displacement touch every corner of the globe, and continue to grow in scale worldwide. More than 22 million uprooted people (or one in every 270 people on earth) currently fall under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than half of the world’s refugees are children, many of them separated from family and loved ones, or having to take on adult roles—caring for younger siblings, gathering food and water, building shelter—in the absence of one or both parents.


A Well-founded Fear

Refugees are people who are outside their country and cannot return home owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This international legal definition of a refugee is contained in the 1951 Convention (and subsequent 1967 Protocol) Relating to the Status of Refugees, which has been signed by 140 countries including the United States.

It is the job of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect such people and to assist them in find lasting solutions to their plight. UNHCR staff members work in 120 countries around the world, often in difficult or dangerous conditions, making sure that refugees can find safety, helping countries to accept and meet refugees’ needs, and eventually, helping refugees to return home or rebuild their lives in a new country. Today, UNHCR also works with asylum-seekers (people who have requested recognition as refugees, but whose applications have not been finally decided) and returnees (refugees who have been able to return to their homelands).

In certain cases, UNHCR also helps internally displaced persons—people who have been forced to flee their homes but who have not crossed an international border. As the nature of war has changed in the past few decades, with more and more internal conflicts replacing wars between states, the number of internally displaced persons has increased significantly. The UN estimates that there are between 20-25 million internally displaced persons worldwide, with major concentrations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, the former Soviet Union, and many African states. UNHCR assists some, but not all, of these people, often at the request of the UN Secretary General. There is now widespread international debate on how best to help all internally displaced persons, and which organizations should be responsible for their well-being.

Of the 22.3 million people now under the responsibility of UNHCR, some 11.7 million are refugees, 1.2 million are asylum-seekers, 2.5 million are returnees, and 6.9 million are internally displaced persons and others affected by war.


Helping Refugees

First and foremost in the struggle to help the world’s refugees is the need to provide protection for these uprooted individuals. Refugees are unable to turn to their own government for protection from harm, and must look to the world to ensure their safety. Offering that safety to a persecuted individual is known as international protection. It means ensuring respect for refugees’ basic human rights and guaranteeing that no person is returned involuntarily to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened. It also means promoting international refugee agreements and government compliance with international refugee law, as well as minimizing the threat of violence—including sexual violence—that many refugees may be subject to, even in countries of asylum.

Beyond the need for safety and legal protection, refugees also have basic survival needs, such as shelter, water, food, medical care, and sanitation. Refugee children need to go to school, even while living in a refugee camp. Families separated by the chaos and violence of war need to be reunited. People who have suffered trauma, such as witnessing the killing of loved ones or being persecuted or harmed themselves, need counseling and assistance to overcome these traumatic experiences and rebuild their lives.


Seeking Solutions

Even when refugees are protected and their basic needs are being met, there is still need for longer-term, concrete solutions to bring their plight to an end and allow them to resume normal lives. Most refugees around the world would choose repatriation, or return to their homelands, as soon as circumstances permit. And, for many refugees, this is indeed the solution that eventually comes about. In 1999, UNHCR helped 2.5 million people return home to countries including Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, East Timor, Liberia, and Cambodia. Repatriation, however, must take place in conditions of safety, and it must be voluntary. In situations where voluntary return is not feasible, UNHCR tries to help governments integrate refugees locally into host communities; or, in a small number of cases, it seeks to find other countries to take refugees in and offer them permanent resettlement in a new land.

The Humanitarian “Figleaf” and Other Challenges

Meeting refugees’ needs for protection and assistance is complicated by a number of factors. One major challenge is ensuring security for refugees as well as for the humanitarian workers trying to help them. As can currently be seen in Guinea—where attacks along the border have sent not only refugees but Guineans into flight and prevented humanitarian agencies from reaching them—insecurity is all too often a pervasive characteristic of refugee situations. As conflicts spill across borders and reach regional proportions, refugees may find themselves victims of war in the very countries where they sought safety. Humanitarian workers, too, may be caught in the crossfire, even becoming intentional targets of kidnapping or murder. In 2000, UNHCR mourned four colleagues killed in the line of duty in West Timor and Guinea.

Another challenge increasingly facing UNHCR is a trend in many countries to limit access to asylum. When conflicts persist for long periods, asylum countries may feel overwhelmed by the number of refugees at their borders, and may simply close the doors. Industrialized nations more and more are passing immigration legislation to reduce the flow of newcomers to their shores; these laws may leave refugees seeking asylum at risk of being returned to a country where they would be persecuted or even killed.

Finally, humanitarian agencies cannot function in a vacuum. Providing assistance, setting up refugee camps, and keeping borders open can relieve suffering and save lives. But these measures constitute little more than a figleaf over the underlying causes of displacement–violence, disregard for human rights, the targeting of civilians in war, persecution, and intolerance. Political responses must be applied to these political causes of displacement, to prevent the forces that drive people from their homes, and to create the conditions to allow them to return home and live in safety and peace. This cannot be achieved by humanitarian agencies alone, but requires the determination of countries all over the world to resolve these problems.


Teaching Activities

1. Create a world refugee map. Using the table “Where do today’s refugees come from?”, mark the main countries of origin of refugees on a world map. Next, mark the main countries to which these refugees have fled.

2. Why do refugees flee? Pick one of the refugee groups you have located on the map. Research the country these refugees came from. Why did they leave? What conditions do they live in now? You can find out more about these groups on UNHCR’s website: www.unhcr.ch

3. Refugees in the news. Follow media coverage of refugee stories. Clip newspaper and magazine articles relating to refugees. Create a news bulletin board by geographic region of these refugee stories. Which regions get the most news coverage? Compare this with your world map of refugee statistics.

4. Find a past refugee. Research your own family history. Did any of your ancestors have to flee violence or persecution? Ask relatives about them, and write up your family’s story. Or, research the history of refugees in your community or a well-known person who was once a refugee (visit www.unhcr-50.org to see a Gallery of Prominent Refugees). Compare the stories found by your class with those of refugees who are fleeing war and persecution today. Are there any similarities between today’s refugees and those from years ago? What, if any, differences are there? What would have happened to the refugees you have researched if they had not been able to find safety in a new land?

5. Explore asylum laws in your country. Research and debate current U.S. policy toward asylum-seekers—a term used for people who enter the country on their own (rather than as designated refugees) and apply for asylum on the grounds of a “well-founded fear” of persecution. What changes in U.S. policy toward asylum-seekers were made by the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996? What factors seem to account for the changes in policy? What are some consequences of the 1996 act? Students could begin their research with the section of this article titled “Give Me Your Huddled Masses.” When research is completed, students could formulate the terms of a debate on the question of asylum in the United States.

UNHCR Lesson Plans

For lesson plans on refugees and human rights, visit www.unhcr.ch/teach/teach.htm

These lesson plans are organized by age level (9-11, 12-14, 15-18) and subject matter, including art, literature, geography, and history. Specific lesson plans on human rights, refugees, and UNHCR are included.

UNHCR also has videos, posters, and other resources for teachers. To request materials, contact usawa@unhcr.ch. Please indicate the grade level you teach.


Prepared by Jennifer Clark, Associate Public Information Officer in the UNHCR Regional Office for the United States of America & the Caribbean in Washington, D.C.


World Refugee Day


The United Nations General Assembly has designated June 20, 2001, as the first World Refugee Day. On this day, people all over the world will join together to express their support for and empathy with the world’s refugees. The worldwide commemoration is an opportunity to recognize the contributions that refugees make to their new countries or to their own homelands, if and when they are able to return. Refugees include such familiar faces as Isabel Allende, Madeleine Albright, and Dr. Ruth. UNHCR is compiling a gallery of such prominent refugees for viewing online at www.unhcr-50.org.

June 20th was selected because of its significance as Africa Refugee Day, which has been celebrated by the Organization of African Unity every June 20th since 1975. African nations have a long tradition of generosity and welcome towards refugees, and currently host over 3.5 million refugees. Building on the tradition of taking one day each year to recognize the refugees in Africa, World Refugee Day will highlight the plight of uprooted people on every continent.

To be part of the first World Refugee Day, schools can organize a number of activities. UNHCR has teaching resources and lesson plans available online to help students understand refugee issues. Classes can also visit www.peaceforall.com, a website that lets visitors click once a day to generate a corporate donation to refugee relief. Finally, students can submit a poster to the World Refugee Day poster contest. Winners of the contest will have their artwork displayed at the Statue of Liberty on World Refugee Day, 2001. For more information, contest guidelines and entry forms, contact: usawa@unhcr.ch


Current Refugee Crises Facing UNHCR



Over the past ten years, more than 500,000 refugees have sought safety here from insecurity in Liberia and civil war in Sierra Leone. A series of rebel attacks along the border regions of Guinea began in September 2000, sending refugees into flight once again, as well as uprooting local Guineans. Relief workers have been unable to reach some of the displaced people due to continuing insecurity. Some refugees have chosen to return to Sierra Leone, even though many are unable to return to their homes in secure areas of the countryside, and are living as internally displaced persons in shelters in the capital, Freetown.




The conflict in Chechnya has caused the displacement of more than 160,000 people into the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. They are facing their second winter as displaced persons, and UNHCR and its partners have been trying to winterize existing shelters and build new winter-proof sites for these people. Some displaced persons who had found shelter with local families are being threatened with eviction as the host families find it increasingly difficult to cope with this added burden. UNHCR has also been trying to raise people’s awareness of the dangers of landmines because of the numerous reports of landmine accidents in Chechnya.



Afghan refugees represent the single largest group of refugees under UNHCR’s protection, with 1.4 million living in Iran and 1.2 million living in Pakistan. In recent months, more Afghans have fled the intensified conflict in their homeland, with around 150,000 new refugees having arrived in Pakistan since September, 2000. Inside Afghanistan, huge numbers of people are also reported to be on the move—estimates are in the hundreds of thousands—because of fighting, drought, hunger, and malnutrition.





Glossary of Refugee Terms


Asylum: Somewhere one can go to find safety. To offer asylum means to offer protection in a safe country to people who are in danger in their own country.


Asylum-seeker: A person who has asked for recognition as a refugee due to fear of persecution, but whose application has not been finally decided by a prospective country of refuge.


Internally Displaced Person: Someone who has been forced to flee home—usually to escape armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights abuses, or natural or manmade disasters—but who has remained within the country rather than crossing an international border.


International Protection: Action by countries and international organizations to ensure the rights, security, and welfare of individuals fleeing persecution and who cannot gain protection from their own government.


Persecution: Action to cause individuals or groups undue suffering because of their race, religion, nationality, group membership, or political beliefs. The term generally refers to any severe violation of human rights.


Refugee: Someone who flees his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A refugee either cannot return home or is afraid to do so.


Repatriation: When refugees return to their homeland. Voluntary repatriation, or choosing to return home when conditions allow it, is the preferred solution for refugees.


Resettlement: The organized movement of refugees from one country (often the first country they fled to) to another. Resettlement is a way to provide safety for certain refugees who are at risk in the country where they first sought refuge.


Returnee: A refugee who has returned to his/her homeland.


Refugee Children

Over half of the refugees in the world are children. Refugee children have the same needs as all children—the needs for food, water, shelter, and medical care; and the needs to learn and play and grow in a loving, supportive, and safe environment. Yet refugee children also have special needs. They have been uprooted from their homes by conflict, and many have witnessed acts of violence and hatred. These children may suffer from nightmares, headaches, and constant fear. Many refugee children have lost family members or become separated from parents and loved ones, making them unaccompanied minors. They have sought safety in what may be a strange land with a different language and culture. Many live in refugee camps, where they struggle to survive, often having to take on adult roles and work to help themselves and their family get by. There, they wait for the day when they can safely go home again, but that future may seem very uncertain.

Some refugee children, especially those who are without the care and protection of their families, can become targets for continued violence, being forcibly recruited to fight in a conflict or forced to work as servants. For many refugee children, going to school is a way to help overcome their fears and the trauma they have experienced. It can give some structure to their lives and provide the feeling of at least a partial return to normal life. And, it gives them a chance to keep learning and to build the skills and knowledge they need for the future.

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children—including refugee children—have the right to an education. In refugee camps, school may be held in a tent or outdoors. Sometimes there are not enough teachers, schoolbooks, paper, and other supplies. Some refugee children cannot attend school regularly because they need to work to support their families. For all refugee children, an education is one of the most valuable things they can have; with all other possessions lost, an education is one thing that cannot be taken away.



An Iranian Surprise


Ray Wilkinson

It is a secretive, brooding country, isolated and little understood by outsiders. It is also the most generous host in the world to millions of refugees. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a nation of contradiction ever since it was established after the revolution against the Iranian shah in 1979. But, as one leading British NGO official put it, “It has also always been at, or near, the top of the league in welcoming and helping refugees.”

At one point in the 1990s, Iran sheltered a staggering 4.5 million exiles from Afghanistan and Iraq—the largest refugee caseload any single country has handled in modern times. It is still host to the world’s largest refugee population, although the number of refugees was down to 1.7 milllion—including 1.4 million Afghans—by the end of 2000. Although the situation remains in flux, more Afghans now are seeking refuge in Pakistan, adding to its longstanding refugee population of 1.2 million Afghans.

The history of refugees in Iran, particularly those from Afghanistan, has been markedly different from the situation in other recent global crises. There is, first, the sheer number of people involved. Second, at least initially, most Afghans were absorbed into local communities, in sharp contrast to other regions where refugees live in squalid camps. Absorption of refugees is the solution preferred by UNHCR, but few governments have been politically or economically willing to undertake such programs.

The Afghans in Iran have received heavily-subsidized food, health, and education packages from the government, and many refugees—including women—found local employment. This has had at least one unintended effect: normally cloistered females have become exposed to the workplace and education for the first time, and ironically, this could make it more difficult for them to resettle in a “traditiona#148; Afghan setting, if and when they return home.

The continuing instability in Afghanistan over the past decade caused the Iranian government to place increasing restrictions on refugees. It dug a huge ditch along its border with Afghanistan, ostensibly to deter drug dealers, but also to stop the flow of thousands of Afghans trying to sneak illegally across the frontier. More Afghans were confined to designated residential areas in cities and towns or to enclosed camps. And, some government benefits were trimmed or halted. These developments reflected both fear that the Taliban in Afghanistan might begin exporting a brand of radical Islam hostile to Iran’s own Shiite beliefs, and a slowdown in Iran’s once booming economy.

Even so, Iran remained fiercely proud of its ability to handle the refugee influx, and long absorbed much of the financial burden that donor nations and humanitarian agencies normally shoulder. By 1996, however, Teheran signalled that it would welcome a larger role by outside agencies in the refugee crisis. UNHCR also focused its attention on providing increased assistance to the non-camp populations that form the bulk of the Afghan refugees.

Women and children always make up a disproportionately large and vulnerable part of any refugee population. A married woman described her situation: “My husband and brother-in-law both work in a factory which makes piggy banks, for which they earn 7,000 rials ($2.40) per day. We live on eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes.” She would like to have another child, but “we cannot afford the cost of delivery. It is very difficult bringing up children. We have to cut our expenditures to pay for stationery and other things my children need at school.”

A widow with six children described her predicament:

My husband died nine months ago. I don’t know what he died of. Nobody in the family is working outside. I am not sure how we survive. I do some embroidery and get 1,000 rials (35 cents) for a day’s work. One of my daughters suffers from polio. We live on bread and tea. My children can at least go to school. They were delivered in hospital. However, I cannot afford to take them to the doctor now. The one exception was when my daughter was sick and I sold my earrings.

Yet along with the undoubted hardships, new horizons have opened for many women. “Now, I make the decisions,” one Afghan woman told an interviewer. “In Iran, the responsibility for the family is with me. In Afghanistan, my husband or older brother or even my husband’s family made all the decisions.” And, said a 21-year-old woman from Kabul: “I left Afghanistan as a little girl, knowing nothing. Now I am a mother and I have had an education. How can I ever go back to the ‘old’ Afghanistan even if peace comes?” That is a dilemma faced by many Afghans.


This material has been adapted and updated from an article in UNHCR’s magazine Refugees (No. 118-II, 1997).

Give Me Your Huddled Masses


Ray Wilkinson

The United States and Canada both give generously to humanitarian emergencies overseas—Washing ton is the largest single contributor to UNHCR, underwriting the agency’s approximately $1 billion budget by 25 percent or more. Both countries supplement funding with expertise, including civilian personnel and, at times, military units—including cargo aircraft that helped feed the people of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo during four winters, and later helped sustain the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the bloodbath that was Rwanda.

The United States accepts more refugees for permanent resettlement than all other countries combined—an estimated 75,000 in the year 2000—and spends a massive $500 million bringing them to the country and helping them begin new lives. With a population only one-tenth the size of the U.S., [Canada] accepts a proportionate number of refugees. Around 7,300 were expected to arrive with government support, and several thousand others under private sponsorships, in 2000. Moreover, the more than 7,000 Kosovars who came a year earlier were given the choice of either staying permanently or returning home, unlike those in Europe, most of whom have been told they must go back now that the crisis has ended.

Advocacy groups say that despite this record, both capitals could do better. As a percentage of a country’s annual wealth, other states—especially the Scandinavians—contribute proportionately far more to humanitarian causes than Washington and Ottawa. And, proponents said, North America could accept more refugees for resettlement, from more parts of the world, who are in greater need of protection than some “politica#148; groups accepted in the past.

The debate over asylum procedures is the thorniest and most controversial of problems in the area of immigration. The United States, critics say, operates a double standard toward refugees and asylum seekers. In Canada, says one lawyer, “There is a perception ... that the only real refugees are those one sees on television languishing in squalid camps ‘over there,’” rather than including people who arrive under their own steam to seek asylum.

When boatloads of Cubans and Haitians arrrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, the system was unprepared to deal with such huge “spontaneous” influxes. In response, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) introduced new regulations in 1990, including the establishment of a professionally trained corps of asylum officers. But, even as these improvements were being implemented, the global refugee landscape was undergoing a profound change.

American lawmakers responded to what they perceived as an increasing and widespread abuse of their asylum system by adopting the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Under its new rules, persons arriving in the United States without any documentation or with false identification—often the only way genuine asylum seekers can escape a repressive situation—are automatically detained and placed into a fast-track process called “expedited remova#148;—which may result in deportation on the spot. If they ask for asylum, a screening interview determines whether they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries and should be allowed into the full asylum procedure. In many cases, these people remain in detention until the end of that asylum procedure, which may take months.

The new act also requires the INS to detain “convicted felons,” who cannot then apply for asylum whatever the underlying circumstances of the case (except in a few very limited circumstances). Moreover, the act expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” to include offenses that by international standards might be considered minor (and are not necessarily “felonies” under U.S. criminal law). The law was applied retroactively and caught people who had already been convicted, served their sentences, and released, but have now been “re-detained” and face deportation.

An estimated 3,000 foreigners find themselves in perhaps the most bizarre predicament of all. Rounded up for various crimes, they cannot be deported because their home countries—principally Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and states of the former Soviet Union—will not accept them back. Effectively, under current detention policy, they could be detained until they die, and have become known as “the lifers.”

Asylum seekers are often housed with criminals solely as a matter of convenience, but once inside, the deliberate jail policy is to “treat everyone the same.” Detainees can be transferred across the country from one facility to another at a moment’s notice and without informing their lawyer. One facility refused to allow detainees literature on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while another cancelled Bible classes for detainees.

In a scathing 1999 report, Amnesty International said: “Asylum seekers have often been treated like criminals, stripped and searched, shackled and chained, sometimes verbally or physically abused. Many are denied access to their families, lawyers, and NGOs. Such treatment violates international treaties and UN standards.”

“Congress had no idea what it was doing in 1996 with things like mandatory detention,” said Kathleen Newland of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “But we have to also keep the numbers in perspective.” For instance, she said, nearly 96 percent of arrivals claiming “credible fear” were admitted to the asylum procedure.


This material is adapted from an article in UNHCR’s magazine Refugees (Volume 2, no. 119, 2000).


Where Do Today’s Refugees Come From?

Country of Origin Main Countries of Asylum Refugees
Afghanistan Iran/Pakistan/India 2,562,000
Iraq Iran/Saudi Arabia/Syria 572,500
Burundi Tanzania/D.R. Congo 525,700
Sierra Leone Guinea/Liberia/Gambia 487,700
Sudan Uganda/Ethiopia/D.R. Congo/Kenya/Central African Rep./Chad 467,700
Somalia Ethiopia/Kenya/Yemen/Djibouti 451,600
Bosnia-Herzegovina Yugoslavia/Croatia/Slovenia 448,700
Angola Zambia/D.R.. Congo/Congo 350,600
Eritrea Sudan 345,600
Croatia Yugoslavia/Bosnia-Herzegovina 340,400

(Origin of Major Refugee Populations, 1 Jan 2000)

Note: This table does not include an estimated 3.5 million Palestinians covered by a separate mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and living in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, Palestinians outside the UNRWA area of operation, such as those in Iraq or Libya, are considered to be of concern to UNHCR.

In fact, Palestinians constitute the world’s largest refugee population, and have spread all over the world during the past 50 years. Of those in UNRWA’s area of operation, more than 1.1 million—or almost one-third—live in refugee camps in Jordan (270,000), Lebanon (199,000), the Syrian Arab Republic (107,000), the West Bank (127,000), and the Gaza Strip (424,000). These statistics for 1998, and other information related to Palestinian refugees, can be found at the UNRWA website: www.un.org/unrwa

Statistics reflecting the countries of origin of the large number of refugees living in more developed countries are not available. Also, many refugees have acquired citizenship in their asylum country—for example, Vietnamese in the U.S.—and therefore are not included in the refugee statistics.


Seeking Asylum in Europe and North America

Asylum Applications Submitted in Selected Industrialized Countries in 1999

Country of Asylum Asylum Applications
Germany 95,110
United Kingdom 71,150
Switzerland 46,070
Netherlands 39,300
Belgium 35,780
Italy 33,360
United States 31,740
France 30,910
Canada 29,390
Austria 20,100