GLOBAL JOURNALIST: A look at World Refugee Day

Friday, June 25, 2010 | 11:55 a.m. CDT; updated 11:17 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010

Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: We're going to discuss an event that passed by us here in the United States last Sunday when we were happily celebrating Father's Day, or in my case, Grandfather's Day — World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day has been highlighted by recent events in Kyrgyzstan. Whether we call them asylum seekers, refugees, displaced persons, or immigrants, there are millions worldwide who do not have a home to go to or a familiar bed to sleep in.

We welcome to our show Kathleen Newland, co-founder and director of Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.; Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher, Human Rights Watch in Geneva, Switzerland; Elena Chadova, freelance journalist from Kyrgyzstan, speaking to us from Izmir, Turkey; and Clayton Swisher, reporter, Al Jazeera English, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Kathleen, can you speak about the whole situation of refugees, displaced persons, and some of the hot spots and problems? We ask you to do a book for us in two minutes.


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Kathleen Newland, co-founder and director, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.: We can start off by trying to describe the magnitude of the problem. Earlier this week, the U.N. refugee agency reported that there are 43 million displaced people in the world. If you put them in one country, it would be probably one of the 20 or 30 largest countries in the world. Of them, about 15 million are refugees, which means they have had to leave their country to seek safety from violence and persecution. And the other two-thirds are displaced inside their countries. It's important to realize that these people were forced to flee from violence or persecution or massive violations of human rights. They're not like other immigrants because they didn't have a choice about leaving their homes. There is a highly elaborated international system for protecting and assisting refugees, but it is always under challenge from lack of resources and lack of will among countries.

Scott: Indeed, and the basic humanitarian right to shelter is often quite complicated. Gerry Simpson, Human Rights Watch released a recent report about Kenya and Somalia, which is an example of part of the problem.

Gerry Simpson, researcher, Human Rights Watch in Geneva, Switzerland: Yes, it's the second report we released on the Somalia refugees' plight in the Northeastern part of Kenya. There are now three camps very close to one another with almost 300,000 Somalia refugees living in them. The camps were originally designed for 90,000 people, so they are over three times the capacity. Shelter ran out in August 2008. Since then, over 100,000 new arrivals have had to squat with older refugees in pretty bad shelter.

It is interesting that Kenya has been hosting Somalis for almost 20 years now, and the lack of land in the camps has created a whole series of problems for new arrivals that goes beyond just the shelter problem. Kenya feels it is being over-burdened. It talks about terrorist threats from an Islamist group in Somalia called Al Shabab. And the police are intercepting Somalia refugees as they arrive at the border and extort, arrest and detain them in inhumanely degrading conditions. The police rape some women, beat men and infants and children are detained all alike. The U.N. refugee agency finds itself in the difficult position of trying to maintain a good relationship with the Kenyan government in trying to negotiate for more land for new camps to help decongest these overcrowded camps.

In trying to do that, it is taking a less than proactive role in monitoring these kinds of abuses, which means that it's up to organizations like Human Rights Watch to come in and help U.N. organizations be a little more assertive in its role advocating for protection for refugees. So it is an interesting example of where police abuses and physical rights violations go hand in hand with the difficult dynamics of refugee camps, giving shelter and other forms of protection to refugees.

Scott: These always begin with conflict of one sort or another, including what has happened in the last couple weeks in Kyrgyzstan with violence against ethnic Uzbeks and between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

Elena Chadova, freelance journalist from Kyrgyzstan, Izmir, Turkey: Inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan started on June 10 this year in the city of Osh, which is the second largest Kyrgyz city and has a significant Uzbek minority. About 10 percent of the Kyrgyz population is ethnic Uzbek. Groups of young people reportedly got access to arms and started driving around the city shooting at Uzbeks. Houses were burned, especially in Uzbek neighborhoods. Many people had to hide in their basements, and there was limited access to food and water. Most people couldn't go out for fear of being killed. Some ethnic Kyrgyz were killed, but most violence was against ethnic Uzbeks. In the three or four days of violence, anywhere between 200 and 2,000 people were killed, and some 400,000 became refugees.

Scott: Can you tell us the extent of international involvement thus far in Kyrgyzstan? The Russian government has declined to send troops as the Kyrgyz' interim president has requested. Is there anyone else coming in?

Chadova: There is an organization that involved Russia, Tajikistan and some other countries that are trying to patrol the streets together with volunteer police. There has been some humanitarian aid coming in from Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, different countries — not so much from European countries yet.

Scott: Clinton Swisher, in terms of international aid, what might or might not be happening?

Swisher: What you have here is 400,000 people who are displaced — 300,000 in Kyrgyzstan proper and 100,000 inside Uzbekistan. Once refugees get settled somewhere, they tend to become a very permanent feature. The ethnic hatred that exists is very disturbing. What we see here is a government that is in transition and that is weak, having come to power in a coup in April this year. Many believed it was some violence instigated by loyalists to the former regime to try to sow further chaos by playing on ethnic passions in the south.

The international community is trying to get in here and set up a humanitarian corridor. In many cases, it is far too little, far too late. What is needed in the regime is a neutral body to come between two warring sides and give a cooling-off period. Well, that is hard to do here, because the Kyrgyz military and many ethnic Uzbeks see them as a sectarian fighting force that participated in the killing of their fellow countrymen. Those numbers are anywhere between 200 official estimates to the 2,000 more realistic estimates acknowledged by the Kyrgyz' president earlier this week. It is sad to see that in this day and age, the images are what many would have seen in Bosnia.

Scott: I saw a report this week that because of the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, elsewhere, the number of displaced persons returning this past year has dropped to the lowest level of many years. Kathleen or Gerry, could you talk about the causes of that?

Newland: I think what we have is a sort of stagnation in a lot of the conflicts that have generated the largest number of refugees in the world. The long-running conflicts in Somalia, in Sudan, the Darfur region and now a threat of renewed violence in southern Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan — you can just go on and on about the number of unresolved conflicts and threatened and actual new ones like the conflict in Kyrgyzstan that happened so quickly and takes such a long time to repair. The United States has set aside $32 million for assistance to Kyrgyzstan and to refugees in Uzbekistan, but it isn't just about the money. It is about people feeling confident that they can go home and rebuild their lives or find some other solution.

Scott: The numbers are so boggling that we almost have to see them as individuals. Yet, these also involve population shifts. Millions of the displaced persons after World War II, for example, have never returned to their homes. Holocaust survivors to Israel, great numbers of other Central Europeans to the United Kingdom and the United States; that is a trend that we have to pay attention to. Gerry, what would be the problems involved with that?

Simpson: It is important not to generalize too much. We did research in South Africa two years ago into the plight of Zimbabweans crossing into South Africa. Estimates range from 1.5 million to 3 million Zimbabweans in South Africa — a very interesting case from a refugee law perspective because it is a mix of people who are fleeing political violence and social and economic deprivation that has been purposely imposed on them by the state. When you speak to Zimbabweans, they all want to go home. They're in South Africa to make money temporarily, to help their families survive in Zimbabwe, but as soon as the situation gets better, they want to go home.

In contrast, when you talk to Somalis, the number one dream of Somalis in the refugee camp is resettlement to the United States. And there is so little hope that the country will get back on its feet within half a generation that most dreamers are never going back. So you have to be careful about generalizing. It really depends on who you're talking to and where they are.

Scott: In a recent report by the European Union commemorating World Refugee Day, the Eurostat said the largest proportion of applications for refugee status or for asylum came from Somalia, at least within the EU. Clayton and Elena, project for us what is going to happen in the near future with the refugees from the Kyrgyzstan conflict and what will happen to them long-term. Will some of them go back to Russia where their great-grandfathers were dumped into Kyrgyzstan by Lenin in 1924?

Swisher: From the time of Lenin, they drew the maps in a very arbitrary way that kept the new states very weak and internally divided with ethnic enclaves. There are Kyrgyz people living inside Uzbekistan, so all around the world you see these arbitrary colonial lines that were drawn. Ultimately, these cause friction and displacement of people, and people who lived in the communities want nothing more than to return to them, so I figure in the short term we'll see ethnic Uzbeks stay with relatives elsewhere in safer parts of the country. In some cases, according to U.N. officials, they're sleeping in stables that are used for livestock on abandoned farms.

Unfortunately, there are so many conflicts like this going on in the world. And in the backdrop of this you have war fatigue. No one wants to put boots on the ground because, frankly, we are in an economic recession and at least in the United States, we have over-extended our capacity to intervene in peace-keeping missions.

Scott: Elena would you like to add to that?

Chadova: A lot of ethnic Uzbeks say they are not planning to come back. That is understandable because tensions persist, but they may not have a choice. For example, we hear in the wake of this violence that a lot of Uzbeks ran across the border to Uzbekistan and into Andijan Province. Now this is hard to believe. Just five years ago in 2005, in the wake of the color revolutions first in Georgia, then in Ukraine, then in Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek troops massacred demonstrators in Andijan. Back then, a lot of Uzbeks ran into Kyrgyzstan for safety. Now a lot of them have to come back. Also a lot of Uzbeks who are living in southern Kyrgyzstan are political refugees from the 1990s when they were escaping an Uzbekistan authoritarian regime. I think the Uzbek security forces didn't forget the needs of those people, so they would run away from immediate danger in Kyrgyzstan, but they may have to come back.

Newland: You mentioned that some of these people might try to go to the Russian Federation, and I think that is a possibility both because the Russian Federation is in need of labor and also because there are linguistic ties from the Soviet period. But it is also true that Central Asians have been treated so badly in Russia as economic migrants that it is an option of last resort. But last resort may be where some of these people have to go now.

Scott: Economic migrants is a term we seem to hear now more frequently anytime since the 1930s.

Swisher: With the destination of choice here in Kyrgyzstan, many look to Tajikistan as the responsible, successful older brother here, and a lot of them go there for work and to send remittances. Until bigger issues get resolved, unfortunately these refugees are just going to have to wait the results of things beyond their control.

Scott: Things beyond their control include things such as budget cuts and political pressures in the European Union, in addition to long-standing diplomatic and ethnic pressures. Gerry, you were going to say something on that?

Simpson: I was going to talk about interface between forced migrants, refugees or involuntary economic migrants who have no choice but to flee droughts and starvation, and the classic economic migrant who is voluntarily leaving home and going somewhere else. Around 70 percent of refugees don't live in refugee camps but in villages, towns and cities. In fact, the U.N. refugee agency just a year ago adopted a new urban refugee policy to try to cope with the challenges of looking after the refugees in cities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo or Kenya, you have refugees living side by side with migrants. All of them live in poverty. A challenge is to figure out how to respond in a way to actually help the locals as well. You're looking after these people in certain host families or host communities as well as the refugees themselves. The increasing deterioration of economies around the world is only going to increase this phenomenon.

Scott: I think we could continue this global geography tour for a long time. As a result of this discussion, I hope our audience may pay more attention to World Refugee Day and continuing refugee problems around the world.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall, and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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