Refugee Numbers Rising

Pope Calls for Greater Solidarity

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By Father John Flynn, L.C.



ROME, JULY 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The number of refugees rose in 2006 for the first time since 2002, according to data published June 19 by the United Nations. The information came in the "2006 Global Trends" report, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The report was issued for the occasion of World Refugee Day, marked by the United Nations on June 20. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, former prime minister of Portugal António Guterres, commented that numbers are continuing to grow in 2007.

Guterres, in an interview published by the Reuters news agency June 20, explained that the increase in refugee numbers last year to 9.9 million was due to a combination of crises in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"I have very grave concerns about the way things are moving ahead for refugees in many parts of the world," said Guterres. Moreover, he added, in many cases the international community does not have the capacity to help them.

A look at the report quickly reveals that the figure of 10 million is only a part of the problem. The introduction explains that the report only covers populations for which UNHCR has a mandate, leaving out, for example, groups such as the estimated 4.3 million Palestinian refugees who fall under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

In fact, the report speaks of no less than 32.9 million people who are termed as forming the group of "persons of concern to UNHCR in 2006." This is a sharp increase on the numbers in 2005, when this group was calculated at 21 million.

The most important cause of the notable rise last year was an increase in the numbers of internally displaced persons. As of the end of 2006, a total of 12.8 million internally displaced persons were receiving humanitarian assistance in some form through the UNHCR. Countries with large numbers of these persons include Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sri Lanka.

The report also explained that there was a significant increase in the number of stateless persons, calculated to be 5.8 million in 2006 compared to 2.4 million in 2005. Even this larger number, however, does not fully reflect the magnitude of the phenomenon of statelessness, according to the report. The UNHCR noted that many stateless people have not been properly identified and that statistical data on the numbers of these people is not yet available in many cases.

Turnaround in numbers

In the case of the estimated 9.9 million refugees by the end of last year, the report noted that from 2002 numbers had declined, reaching a low of 8.7 million at the start of 2006. One of the main factors in the increase during 2006 was the exodus of 1.2 million Iraqis, who fled their country for refuge in Jordan and Syria.

The picture for last year was not all negative. The UNHCR reported that large reductions in refugee numbers took place in some African regions, mainly due to successful voluntary repatriations to Liberia and Angola. There was also a reduction of almost 100,000 refugees in Germany, and some 37,000 refugees in Serbia obtained citizenship.

When it comes to countries that are host to large numbers of refugees, Pakistan is in first place, followed by Iran. Together the two nations house around 20% of the total number. Even though during 2006 an estimated 387,000 Afghans returned to their country, the official numbers of refugees in Pakistan and Iran barely changed, as most of those returning home had not been part of the officially registered refugee population.

Other countries that support large numbers of refugees include the United States, with an estimated 844,000 refugees in 2006. Syria had 702,000 refugees and Germany 605,000. Last year Jordan moved into the top 10 asylum countries, hosting an estimated 500,000 Iraqi refugees.

In terms of the country of origin of refugees Afghanistan continued to be in first place, with around 2.1 million by the end of 2006, spread among no less than 71 countries. Iraq was the second largest source, with 1.5 million. Sudan followed, with 686,000 of its nationals outside the country. Three other countries, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi accounted for just over 1.2 million refugees.

During 2006 some 734,000 refugees repatriated voluntarily, one-third less than in 2005, which had a total of 1.1 million returnees. An estimated 11.6 million refugees have returned home over the past 10 years, according to the report.

In addition, a total of 71,700 refugees were admitted by 15 resettlement countries last year. The leading nation was the United States, which accepted 41,300 refugees, followed by Australia -- 13,400 -- and Canada -- 10,700. The overall total of those resettled was 11% below the 2005 number. Some refugees were also able to receive citizenship in the country that had originally accepted them, for example, 98,500 in the United States.

Showing evangelical love

The U.N.'s World Refugee Day on June 20 coincided with one of the regular Wednesday papal audiences. At the end of his address Benedict XVI referred to the refugee question and called for hospitality toward refugees in the name of human solidarity.

From a Christian perspective, the Pontiff continued, making refugees welcome is a way we can show our evangelical love. "I wish with all my heart that our brothers and sisters who suffer will be guaranteed exile and the recognition of their rights, and I invite the leaders of all nations to offer protection to those who find themselves in need," the Pope concluded.

The Church also dedicates a day to commemorating refugees and also migrants in general. The Pope's message for this year's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, marked on Jan. 14, focused on the situation of families.

The Holy Family of Nazareth, the Pontiff commented, was forced to flee to Egypt shortly after the birth of Jesus. Their experience can help us understand the painful difficulties of all migrants, but especially the experience of refugees, he added.

The value of the family needs to be recognized for those who are migrants and refugees, Benedict XVI insisted in his message. In addition to its advocacy on behalf of migrants, the Church also offers its aid through a number of charitable institutions and centers.

The Pope mentioned the plight of refugees who suffer great problems in maintaining their families intact, or in unifying their members after being separated. In addition, he continued, refugees also have sometimes undergone trauma or emotional stress, and the living conditions in the camps where they are placed are often difficult. Benedict XVI also commented that women and children refugees face the additional risk of sexual exploitation.

"Aside from giving assistance capable of healing the wounds of the heart, pastoral care should also offer the support of the Christian community, able to restore the culture of respect and have the true value of love found again," the Pope recommended. "Everything must also be done to guarantee the rights and dignity of the families and to assure them housing facilities according to their needs," he added.

As well, the Pope recommended that refugees cultivate "an open and positive attitude toward their receiving society and maintain an active willingness to accept offers to participate in building together an integrated community that would be a 'common household' for all." A community called upon to accept ever-growing numbers of migrants and refugees.