Feature: Giving refugees back their homes and dignity

Malay Mail, Malaysia
July 3 2004

Feature: Giving refugees back their homes and dignity
Meera Murugesan

IF a house is on fire, we don’t send people back into it. Volker
Turk, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, who said that, certainly has a point.

There are about 17.1 million people around the world today whose
`houses’ are `on fire’ but surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of
them still nurse hopes of returning to these homes some day.

It is a myth that refugees want to stay put in their host countries,
said Turk, during a presentation at Wisma UN in Kuala Lumpur, in
conjunction with World Refugee Day on June 20.

`Very often, the most fervent wish of a refugee is to return home,
but they are unable to do so until there is a change in the situation
that drove them out in the first place,’ he said.

This statement is backed by UNHCR figures which, among others,
indicated that three million Afghan refugees have made the move back
home from places like Pakistan and Iran since the situation in
Afghanistan started to improve towards the end of 2001.

Refugees from countries like Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi,
Liberia and Somalia have also decided to return in large numbers.
Last year alone, some 1.1 million refugees around the world returned
home.

But the work of the UNHCR doesn’t stop with `returnees’ making their
way home through voluntary repatriation programmes.

The agency continues its work by monitoring the returnees and looking
into human rights issues that affect them. It focuses on
reconstruction and rehabilitation work as well, to ensure that the
returnees can go home to conditions of safety and dignity.

The UNHCR also assists in rebuilding homes and communities and in the
reconstruction of important structures for living such as wells,
schools, clinics and roads.

Of the more than 21 million people worldwide under the care and
protection of the UNHCR, more than half are children. Children
naturally suffer the most when war breaks out, and some refugee
children may sit in total silence all day, or rock back and forth
endlessly, or throw uncontrollable tantrums.

Their memories are full of terrifying nightmares and, whenever
possible, the UNHCR provides medical and psychological treatment for
these desperate children. Slowly, with loving care and a routine of
lessons and play, many recover to lead normal lives again.

While voluntary repatriation works for some refugees, there will
always be those who can never return or are forced to remain in the
host country for a long period.

For such people, there is the challenge of finding a practical
solution to their problem. Generally, there are two options, one
being resettlement in a third country and the other, the possibility
of integration into the host country itself.

The better solution would be integration into the host community
itself, said Turk, and over the years, the UNHCR has seen some
positive examples of this.

The Armenian Government, for example, has naturalised between 50,000
and 60,000 refugees of Armenian origin who were originally from
Azerbaijan. These people fled their country for Armenia when conflict
broke out between the two countries in 1988.

However, if a solution cannot be found in the host country, then
placing refugees in a third country is usually the method undertaken.

Last year, the UNHCR helped to resettle some 28,000 refugees
worldwide in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and
a number of European countries.

But for many people today, the image of a refugee is fast becoming
one associated with criminals and illegal migrants, said Turk, and
these perceptions have to be changed if refugees are to receive the
help they deserve.

`I think we have seen more public hostility towards refugees both in
the media and among politicians worldwide,’ he said.

`It is unfortunate that the positive role that refugees can play in a
country is rarely highlighted, nor the inspiring stories of these
individuals. Very often, refugees are resourceful people who have
demonstrated tremendous strength and courage in overcoming obstacles.
What we need to hear are these stories because they help to create an
awareness and an understanding of their plight.’

Over the past five decades, the UNHCR has helped more than 50 million
people uprooted by the turmoil of conflict to find a new home and
start their lives over again.

In honour of every refugee’s dream to return home and live in dignity
and security, this year’s World Refugee Day had the theme: `A Place
To Call Home’.