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UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2011 (IPS) - The hardest part of Jan Egeland’s job is coming home at the end of the day. He is the Director of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs and the former U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, and has travelled to the farthest reaches of the world to help protect refugees and displaced people.
“It’s very hard to leave,” he told IPS, “because when you leave, you go back to your welfare, your safety, all your riches, and I’ve always felt in a way a bad conscience.”
On Monday, World Refugee Day, Egeland spoke in New York to commemorate the 150th birthday of Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s landmark 1951 Refugee Convention.
Egeland described his experiences in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and noted the lack of international attention to the world’s most desperate migrants, despite their staggering numbers.
“The reason we’re not hearing more about it is it’s hurting very poor people, very far away,” he said, adding, “The most difficult thing in meetings like this, so far from the front lines, is to try to imagine how it is to be at the front lines.”
To shed some light on the situation on the ground the UNHCR annually releases a report on its work, spanning 120 countries. The 2010 edition, released last week, cites 43.7 million displaced people worldwide, including 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) – those displaced within their own countries – and 850,000 asylum seekers.
Overall, the report finds an increasing protraction of the refugee experience, with millions of people in exile for 5 to 30 years.
Another primary challenge is the disproportionate pressure on developing countries to house increasing numbers of refugees and IDPs.
“Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier nations,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday. “Anti-refugee sentiment is often hardest in industrialised nations, yet it is actually developing countries that host 80 percent of the world’s refugees,” he added, referring to new data from the 2010 UNHCR report.
Pakistan currently houses the greatest number of displaced people worldwide, with 1.9 million as of 2010. It is followed by Iran and Syria, with 1.1 million and 1 million migrants, respectively.
Tanzanian Ambassador Ombeni Sefue pointed out that, as a continent, Africa holds the greatest concentration of displaced people. “If a poor country like Tanzania, like others in Africa, can host so many refugees and try to help them,” he said, “it should be possible for others to do.”
Refugee living has also become largely a women’s issue. “The majority of refugees are women or children,” Sarah Costa, executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told IPS. “It’s incredibly important that their needs are addressed,” she said, “and their needs are quite different.”
The unique concerns of female refugees range from accessing reproductive healthcare to finding employment – and, of course, avoiding sexual harassment and exploitation.
“We know that rape is a weapon of war,” said Costa, “but we also know that in these kinds of settings, when women are fleeing, they’re incredibly vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. And then when they do finally land in an urban area to work, they’re also vulnerable,” she said. “They get exploited and they live in the shadows of their city.”
That is what happened to Nour al-Kahl, an Iraqi woman who was kidnapped while working as a translator for ‘New York Times’ journalist Steven Vincent. They were both shot, but she survived and fled to Jordan, where she spent 18 months in exile.
In Jordan, however, Iraqi refugees are recognised only as visitors. As such, she had no access to health care or employment. When she did find a job, she learned that most women are sexually harassed in the workplace and forced to have sex before they are paid, she said.
Al-Kahl, however, was eventually assisted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), gained refugee status, and moved to the U.S.
“I said, there’s no way I would go back where there is violence and my life is endangered. I must hold on to my dreams and hopes,” she said in an interview with IPS. “And I want them to do the same thing,” she added, referring to the increasing number of refugees, including many women, who are fleeing to countries like Jordan in the wake of the Arab Spring. “I’m just asking them to hold on, not to give up, not to compromise.”
She also finds the international community too light-hearted in their refugee protection efforts.
“They are optimistic – I don’t know why, because more and more people… get displaced and have to flee their countries,” she said. “I’m not as optimistic as they are,” she added.
Al-Kahl asked the international community “to act quickly and take the issue seriously – not just for media or propaganda.”
And she is not the only one calling for more than ‘band-aid’ solutions and fleeting media coverage.
According to Egeland, all too often, refugee efforts result only in “keeping people alive, but giving them no life – giving them no protection.”
Sefue agreed. “We have to invest in making sure that we don’t impress only the short-term humanitarian needs, but we also need to feed the foundations of growing economies, inclusive economies,” he said. “We have to save lives today, but we must also make those lives worth saving.”
According to Costa, party of the answer is talking with the victims themselves. “They can tell you on the ground what should be in place to help them be better protected,” she said. “Listening to them is key.”
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