Twenty years of Refugee Week

If we think that the notion of a ‘refugee crisis’ is recent, it’s salutary to look back over the last twenty years since Refugee Week has been a thing.  The twentieth century was designated the Century of Refugees – as if there was the remotest possibility that mass forced migration would be something the twenty-first century would escape.

What follows is the tiniest fragment of the overall picture of forced migration around the world.  These are examples which, I hope, will illustrate not only the geographical scope but the multiplicity of reasons why people leave their homes and everything they know for an uncertain future in a strange land.

In 1998 refugees fled from Lesotho after rebel conflicts with the South African army.  There were attacks by the Myanmar army on Thai border refugee camps housing Karen people.  And the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide continued to have a major impact in central Africa, as the conflict and genocide in the former Yugoslavian territories did in Europe.  A national emergency was declared in June as a result of the Kosovo War.  Over 250,000 Albanians had been displaced from their homes, and many were without warm clothing or shelter as winter approached.

albanian refugees

In 1999 the Kosovan exodus continued.  As the civil war (1975-2002) continued, Angolans fled into Zambia.


And a new civil war in Liberia forced thousands into Ghana, where the Buduburam camp was set up to accommodate them.  It’s still there, one of a number of refugee camps which have become permanent settlements, and is home to 42,000 people.

In 2000, the so-called Century of Refugees came to an end.

You don’t see them run, because they aren’t on the nightly news shows. But in the last few weeks, tens of thousands of hungry Afghans have been moving toward Herat, near the border of Iran, driven by civil war, bad government, winter and the worst drought in decades.

They aren’t alone. A continent away, renewed fighting in the Congo has people on the run again, this time into Zambia, where Angolans are also seeking shelter. In West Africa, the small nation of Guinea, with three million people, is being overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a cruel government in Liberia and a civil war in Sierra Leone.

In 2001 Afghanistan became one of the major sources of refugees.  Many fled the harsh rule of the Taliban, but more were displaced after the US invasion, prompted by the attack on the World Trade Centre.  Many went to Pakistan which had received its first wave of Afghan refugees during the Soviet war in the late 1970s.   By the end of 2001, there were over four million.


In 2002, Afghans continued to seek refuge, in Pakistan and in Iran.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported on the difficulties facing Serb refugees in Croatia, and the obstacles to their return home.  The Central African Republic experienced the latest in a long line of coups and uprisings, resulting in around 42,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Chad, as well as 200,000 being internally displaced.

7. New Arrivals from CAR

In 2004,  MSF appealed for aid as around 110,000 refugees from Darfur crossed the border into Chad.  North Korean refugees fled to Mongolia, which was trying hard to maintain good relations with both North and South Korea, and resisting opening a UN-administered refugee processing camp.


In 2005, whilst the Bosnian war had been over for more than three years, the vast majority of refugees had not returned home.  The crisis in Kosovo had created around 1.5 m refugees and displaced persons. More than 400 Uzbek citizens sought asylum in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan following the 13 May 2005 uprising in the Uzbek town of Andijan. They remain in refugee camps in southern Kyrgyzstan awaiting a decision on their future. Around 38,000 refugees fled Togo to Benin and Ghana after political violence triggered by a disputed presidential election.


In 2006, the UNHCR resumed its voluntary repatriation programme for Congolese refugees in Tanzania. As many as 50,000 refugees from Lebanon crossed into Syria at one single border point, to escape Israeli airstrikes.  Syrian authorities report more than 140,000 people have entered their country from Lebanon since the crisis started.  Iran was the largest refugee haven, mainly for Iraqis and Afghans.

In 2007, nearly 2 million Iraqis – about 8 percent of the prewar population – fled the country, mostly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The refugees included large numbers of doctors, academics and other professionals vital for Iraq’s recovery. Another 1.7 million had been forced to move to safer towns and villages inside Iraq, and as many as 50,000 Iraqis a month were fleeing their homes.


In 2008, nine refugee camps stretched along western Thailand’s border with Myanmar, with the largest, Mae La, housing 43,000 people from the Karen ethnic group who had fled their homes due to violence in Myanmar (military attacks by the Myanmar army, forced labor, destruction of homes and food crops, and enslavement). Another of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, the Chin, fled into neighbouring India and settled in the Mizoram hills.


In 2009, returning Afghan refugees found the country’s institutions ill-equipped to meet their needs.  The UNHCR faced mounting pressure from Iran and Pakistan, the main refugee hosting states, to maintain high repatriation figures. The prolonged refugee presence and the persistence of unchecked cross-border movements increased Pakistan’s and Iran’s leverage over their neighbour.

In 2010, Brazil hosted refugees from 72 nationalities, including Angola and Colombia, whilst Ecuador housed 300,000 Colombian refugees.


Iraqi refugees were proving reluctant to register with the UNHCR, often because they feared being repatriated.

The reasons are mixed, but clearly include the deep reluctance of refugees to envisage returning to a society profoundly marked by war, insecurity, civil conflict and economic uncertainty. Some Iraqis say they fear involuntary repatriation to Iraq if they formally register with the UN agency (while only 273 Iraqi families returned to Iraqi in 2010 under the UNHCR’s voluntary-repatriation programme). Many, with greater reason, are reluctant to go back to a country no longer characterised by mixed religious and ethnic communities and the legacy of Ottoman tolerance for ethno-religious differences. The emergent Iraqi state is clearly an “unmixed” one under which many Sunni Muslims are uncomfortableand Christian communities endangered and in flight.

In 2011,  Colombia had around 3.5m internally displaced people, with 500-700k seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.  It was the seventh largest refugee population in the world.  Colombia has been torn apart by conflict for over 40 years. The war between the government, guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers has killed up to 200,000 people and has displaced millions of others.


The island of Lampedusa, part of Italy but closer to North Africa than to Europe, had long been the first port of call for migrants from North Africa.  This escalated with the events of the Arab Spring, the collapse of the regime in Tunisia, and conflict in Libya. The UN estimated that in 2011 around 1,500 died trying to make the crossing. In good weather, the island may see up to ten boats a day, bringing in over 1,000 refugees.

In 2012:

Here at Pauktaw refugee camp in Rakhine state – home to the inhabitants of five Rohingya Muslim villages who fled intercommunal conflict in western Burma this year – there are no schools, no work and no fields to cultivate – because no one is allowed to leave. When a helicopter lands, they hope it will bring either more supplies or some end to a way of life that has been unchanged for six months. Since June Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, has been ripped apart by violence between the majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, 200 people have been killed and more than 115,000 displaced. Communities that once co-existed peacefully have been sent to segregated refugee camps all around the state, the majority of them filled with Rohingya – a population of roughly 800,000 who claim to be rightful citizens of Burma but whom the Burmese government widely calls “Bengali immigrants”, denying them citizenship and placing restrictions on their rights to travel, attend higher education and even marry.


In 2013:

It started with thousands of people on the streets. It has resulted in millions of people on the move. Syria’s civil war has generated the world’s gravest refugee crisis in a generation, with close to 2 million people fleeing the country and perhaps twice that number uprooted and homeless within Syria itself.

By the end of this year, there will be one Syrian in Jordan for every six Jordanians. This stark figure is just one example of the impact the civil war in Syria is having on neighbouring countries, where an estimated 1.7 million Syrians have fled, with more seeking safety every day. It is a figure that should spur the international community into action.


The 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka created many thousands of refugees.  But whilst it ended in 2009, four years later, people were continuing to seek asylum in Australia.

sri lanka refugees

In fact, the flow of refugees commonly increases, not decreases, after the end of a conflict. This happened after the wars in Vietnam and Bosnia-Herzegovina, after conflicts across Africa and South America, and even after the First and Second World Wars. The million or so people who left South-east Asia after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not fleeing straightforward oppression: they were leaving behind sites of trauma and despair that had become too painful. The flight of Sri Lankan citizens — Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim — after the conclusion of the recent civil war largely fits this pattern. The alleged autocratic nature of the regime, continuing human rights abuses and threats to democratic processes, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary may well exist, but they are not the reasons why thousands of people are prepared to risk their lives to leave their homeland. They do not see a future for themselves there. They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth.

In 2014, as Syria‘s civil war continued, the UN was struggling to support more than 9m displaced people, a third of whom had left the country.  Lebanon was taking significantly more Syrian refugees than any other country, with more than 1.1m refugees – almost one in four people are now refugees from Syria. Outside of the region, most countries were reluctant to formally resettle any significant number of Syrian refugees. Germany, however, had already accepted 6,000 Syrian refugees and has pledged to take up to 20,000.

In 2015, the front page photograph of a small boy called Alan or Aylan Kurdi brought the latest phase of the refugee crisis to world attention, prompting a massive volunteering effort to provide support and resources for refugees in Europe, and to help the refugees who were risking their lives on unseaworthy boats across the Mediterranean. Some refugees found themselves at Keleti railway station in Hungary:

After days of squalid limbo, the refugees of Keleti station square, armed only with desperation, forced the hand of a government they saw as jailers. Despairing of ever escaping the increasingly squalid station, barred from boarding trains and buses without papers, they simply set off to Austria on foot, a 125-mile journey that seemed better than staying put. … Ever larger crowds of desperate, penniless, homeless people milled around, unable to go on to the countries they dreamt of, unwilling to go back to the countries they had fled, trying to hang on to dignity and hope. It was not easy, as a refugee camp took shocking shape in the heart of a European capital. Hundreds were camping out on a metro underpass and a small plaza in front of its entrance. Among them were many children, cut and bruised, hungry and frightened.


In 2016:

Yemeni refugees fleeing the Saudi bombings fled to Djibouti.

Nearly 35,000 people have made the journey southwards across the [Bab-el-Mandeb] strait (which translates as Gate of Tears) [from Yemen] to the tiny authoritarian state of Djibouti since March 2015, when Houthi Shia rebels overthrew the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia responded with a relentless bombing campaign. Just over half are Yemeni. According to the regional mixed migration secretariat (RMMS), which monitors movements between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the rest are Somali refugees, Djiboutian returnees and other nationalities.



In 2017, the numbers entering Europe had dropped since the peak of 2015,

but a new question has arisen. They are here now, so what do we do with them?

The answer may lie on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, close to Turkey. Tilos has a population of only about 500, but it is now hosting over 50 refugees, 100 over the course of this year so far – 20% of the population. And, thanks to a few simple initiatives, the refugees have not only been integrated but enabled. They are making a positive social and financial contribution to the island. …. Tilos can teach us several things: above all, that integration, even on a large scale relative to population, is possible; and that refugees can be a boon not a burden. The key is inclusion. More money needs to be given to similar programmes, not to funding large camps that do nothing but mire their occupants in a squalid limbo. For integration to adequately happen, NGOs and the private sector must take the lead: government alone – overly bureaucratic, risk-averse, fickle and unwieldy – is not up to the task.  As it stands the UK and European governments are catastrophically failing to deal with refugees, with many saying it’s simply not possible. This tiny Greek island shows us that it is. We must learn from Tilos’s example.


Rallies took place across Australia protesting at the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island.  Papua New Guinea authorities had closed the detention centre and forcibly removed the remaining refugees, who were refusing to leave, fearing for their safety and wellbeing. Médecins Sans Frontières was denied access to the refugees, despite having been granted approval earlier in the week.


In 2018, we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.


Three ships, the Aquarius, operated by the charities SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an Italian naval ship and an Italian coastguard vessel arrived in Valencia, carrying 629 weak and exhausted refugees, including pregnant women and over 100 unaccompanied minors.  They had been refused harbour in Italy and Malta.

Spain’s foreign minister has described his government’s decision to take in the hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship as a “highly symbolic act” intended to jolt Europe out of its “ostrich politics” on the issue of migration. The 629 people … were rescued by the French NGO SOS Méditerranée from waters off the coast of Libya on Saturday, and the Aquarius was caught in a standoff over the weekend in which both Italy and Malta refused to allow it to dock. Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, stepped in on Monday and said the ship would be welcome in the port of Valencia, insisting his country had a duty to help avert “a humanitarian catastrophe”.

Outside the warehouse hung a huge banner, reading, “Welcome home” in Valencian, Spanish, English, French and Arabic. Staff from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, will be present to help passengers fleeing war or persecution claim asylum, while 400 interpreters will be on hand to ensure proper communication. The operation is being overseen by Valencia’s regional government. It also emerged on Saturday afternoon that the French government had offered to take in any of the Aquarius passengers who wished to settle in the country once the necessary procedures had been followed. Spain’s decision to accept the migrants and refugees comes amid rising tensions within the EU and calls for a fundamental reappraisal of the current migrations system.

ref week




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