refugee camps worldwide
Imagine that your life, as you know it, disappears in the blink of an eye. War, violence or fear for your family’s safety force you to flee your home. After hours or even days of a torturous journey, you find shelter far away, in a squalid tent. You are dependent on handouts of food; possibly have no clean drinking water or access to health care that prevents outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, malaria, and other diseases.
Not a pretty picture, right? But the fact is that millions of people around the world, in countries big and small, people of all ages and many nationalities, have been living in such desolate and precarious conditions for years.
These people are called refugees or internally displaced persons. This is their story.
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According to the 2006 World Refugee survey conducted annually by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), a staggering 33 million people worldwide are currently uprooted from their homes. Of that number, 12 million are refugees and asylum seekers living in camps in countries other than their own, and 21 million are Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), an official designation for civilians displaced by persecution, armed conflict or widespread violence. They do not fall under the official category of a “refugee” because they remain inside their own countries, but their plight is just as dire.
world map featuring 700 refugee camps worldwide
total refugees 12,581,698. locations on map are estimates. data source: UNHCR
USCRI says that Iraqis are currently the fastest growing refugee and IDP crisis group in the world with nearly 2 million people having fled the country, and 1.7 million internally displaced. In Sudan, more than 5.3 million people left their homes in an attempt to escape the genocide by the government-backed militia in the western part of the country, which the world community knows as Darfur. And an on-going armed conflict in Colombia internally displaced 2.9 million people.
Those are just three “tips of the iceberg” in a long list of countries and regions impacted by this human tragedy. USCRI statistics show that 26 conflict-ridden nations, predominantly in Africa and the Middle East, have an IDP crisis. And, since new and emerging conflicts are constantly creating a new wave of refugees and IDPs, keeping track of the numbers is a challenging task.
What the current USCRI figures show is this:
- The Middle East has the highest number of refugees and IDPs: a staggering 4.2 million. Palestinians, Afghanis and Iraqis make up the majority of the uprooted population.
- With 3.2 million refugees and IDPs, Africa has the second highest number. Refugees from Sudan are the largest group, scattered throughout the camps in various countries.
- Almost 2 million refugees and IDPs live in south and central Asia, with over 1 million Afghanis in Pakistan alone.
life in the camps
When people flee their homesteads, they leave behind most of their belongings. Sometimes they manage to grab a few basics, but most of the time they are just happy to escape with their lives intact. They usually end up with thousands of others in a settlement that can stretch for miles. This is a refugee camp, a place that not one of us would willingly choose to inhabit.
But the refugees have no choice. Having fled conflicts of unimaginable proportions – massacre, genocide, and other atrocities - they are relieved to have found a safe place. So they construct tents and other makeshift shelters from whatever materials happen to be available -- sticks, plastic sheeting, mud and stones. In the best of cases, humanitarian aid agencies, as those mentioned above, will provide the basics: food, clean drinking water, and rudimentary health care. But sometimes, depending on the local political climate and the accessibility to the camp, weeks could go by before help arrives.
That is more than enough time for water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery to take hold and spread quickly among thousands of people gathered in these makeshift settlements.
The hope among the refugees is that they will be resettled quickly to a safe place, or, even better, return to the homes they had left behind. After all, a refugee camp is intended as a temporary solution, not a permanent residence.
Unfortunately, for many millions of people that is not the case.
It is hard to imagine, but some refugees often end up living in the camps for much longer than expected because they have no safe home to return to, or cannot be resettled in other countries due to restrictive asylum policies of other nations. Aid workers call this protracted stay “warehousing,” defined as “populations of 10,000 or more restricted to camps or segregated settlements, or otherwise deprived of basic rights five years or more.”
Globally, according to USCRI, there are an estimated 7.8 million people who fall under the category of “perpetual refugees.” At over 3 million, Palestinians top the list. They have been in camps for so long – over 50 years -- the UNHCR does not even include them in their overall figures. And over 1 million Afghanis have been in Pakistan for 26 years. Imagine: generations of these people have never seen their homelands.
There is one lesson we can draw from history: as long as there have been wars and conflicts, there have been refugees. And the obvious tragedy is that we have not learned from the past. Seven years into the 21st century, millions of displaced souls still have no homes of their own.
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