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What an existence!
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 06 - 2009


By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Millions of helpless, homeless, stateless souls wander aimlessly, hopelessly, carelessly, while the world celebrates their existence on foreign land. They only dream, if they can still dream, of returning to their homeland. World Refugee Day, celebrated June 20th, found the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) jubilant over the fact that the number of refugees worldwide has reached a 26-year low. Cause indeed to celebrate, or to lament? Yet UNHCR lost no time in qualifying their declaration, adding that their annual global count of uprooted people rose last year to 21 million, and 6.6 more millions are now Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in 16 countries. Living as refugees within your own borders is not deemed as refugee status. Afghans (2.9 million), Columbians (2,5 million), Iraqis (1,8 million), Sudanese (1.6 million), Somalis (839,000), are referred to as "uprooted people of concern." The question is whose concern? By dividing the numbers into several categories gives reason for the High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, to breathe easier, even to celebrate World Refugee Day. For the rest of us, we have one more reason to feel the wrenching heartache over the plight of our fellow man.
While emigrants indulge themselves in dreams of a glorious life in the land of their choice, a refugee is by contrast compelled to breathe no more the air of his native land.. The definition established in 1951 in Geneva by the Refugee Convention describes refugees as those who are forced to leave their habitual residence "owing to fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion."
The term "refugee" comes from the Latin word "fugere," meaning "to flee." Wandering away from his native land in search of food, freedom, and survival is no easy matter. Refugees are thrust into a life of longing, loneliness, and uncertainty, as well as discrimination, deprivation and often destitution. What an existence!
Once confined to refugees from war-torn Europe, such as dissidents from the Soviet Union, according to the Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951, it was extended by a 1967 protocol to include refugees anywhere entitling them to the protection of the 147 countries that signed the convention. By and large refugees find themselves unwelcome by host countries. Some countries, such the UK have established refugee camps and detention centers causing major discontent. The UNHCR cites three solutions: 1.Permanent residence in the host country; 2. Resettlement in third countries; 3.Repatriation to the country of origin. The third option is most desirable, yet 2 million Afghans have been refused repatriation to their homeland, and remain in Pakistan to the dismay of both guest and host.
History has witnessed the flight of refugees since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks without the benefit of conventions or protocols. Flight to a holy place was considered sacred, and harming any refugee was feared to invite divine retribution. The first to legalize refugee status was King Ethelbert of Kent (600 AD). Seeking asylum in a church or a holy place became a right, protected by law. During the Middle Ages similar laws were implemented throughout Europe. The concept of exile as punishment also has a long history. The great Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidus Naso (43 BC -- 18 AD)) was banished from Rome to an isolated city on the Black Sea. Ovid's poetry happened to have offended Emperor Augustus, and exile was the severest punishment next to death and prison. The poet's pleas to return to Rome were denied, and Ovid died in exile. On offending a nobleman French writer Francois Marie Arouet, (Voltaire -1694-1778) was allowed to choose between continued imprisonment at the Bastille or exile. Voltaire lived in England for 3 years. It is said that Voltaire went into exile a poet, and came back a philosopher.
A mass refugee movement started around WW-I (1914- 1918), a long precession of Jewish refugees fled pogroms and persecution in Russia. 1.5 million Russian aristocrats fled the Russian revolution and the subsequent civil war (1917-1921) fleeing the communist regime. In 1923 over one million Armenians left Turkish Asia Minor following the Armenian genocide. Greeks also fled Turkey, leaving the League of Nations with their hands full. Unable to deal with the numbers, it appointed the famous Norwegian explorer and scientist Fried Gof Nausen, as special commissioner to help the refugees.
The number of refugees continued to rise before and during WW-II. Millions of Chinese fled Westward after the Japanese invasion in 1937. During the Spanish Civil War, 340,000 Spaniards moved to Southern France, while hundreds of thousands of Jews fled from Nazi Germany. . Wars and revolutions keep creating more refugees. An estimated 80% are women and children who often carry the heaviest burden of survival. Condemned to a life of misery, women are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and rape. Children and youths comprise 50% of all refugees,. More than 43 million children living in conflict-related areas do not go to school.
The UNHCR may well deserve the two Nobel Peace Prizes received in 1954 and 1981, but its estimate of the number of refugees falls rather short from reality. The US Committee for Refugees and Immigration gives the world total as 62 million refugees, and estimates there are 34 million more who are considered Internally Displaced Persons remaining within their national borders. You must cross the borders of your native land in order to be legally classified as a refugee.
The tally by any organization does not include the 4.5 million Palestinian refugees, who separately fall under the Authority of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. They are the only group of refugees whose descendents are also considered refugees. Who would wish upon their descendents the suffering, displacement and persecution? What children would be protected by, dislodged, dispersed, dispirited, displaced and depressed parents?
What is the solution? Who has the answer? Where does it lie? With host countries? With the refugees? Or within the hearts of each and every one of us? Mankind allows them to live such lives. Mankind allows them to undergo such suffering. Silence reigns!
Close to home, we have watched the Palestinians struggling for over half a century for the right to return, but their right to repatriation has been categorically denied. Others - foreigners, incomers, imposters, have claimed their homes and lands. From a distance, from poverty-stricken, shabby camps, tents and shelters, they sigh and they cry. So far and yet so close to home. The rest of us are able to live, to eat, to laugh, to sleep, while Palestinian refugees cannot fund clean water to drink. How often can a human heart break!
What greater grief than the loss of one's native land.
Euripedes (485 -- 406 BC)


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