2005 saw standards and practices regarding refugees and asylum seekers erode nearly everywhere. European Union governments continued their efforts to find ways to send unwanted refugees back to so-called “safe” third countries without their original claims or appeals heard. The situation in large parts of Africa and Asia, where the majority of the world’s refugees reside, is hardly any better. An increasing number of host states in the developing world respond to refugee influxes by containing or “warehousing” them in isolated and insecure refugee camps, typically in border regions far from the governing regime.
Refugees living in such situations frequently have no rights. They are not permitted to work and cannot move beyond the perimeter of the enclosed camps. They are soon forgotten by the rest of the world and become dependent on subsistence-level assistance, or less, and lead lives of poverty, frustration and unrealised potential. Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees now live in protracted refugee situations and the average length of stay for refugees in these conditions is now an incredible seventeen years.
In future years we have to do better by refugees. The way we treat refugees matters because it is a litmus test of how tolerant and just we are as a society, as nations, and as an international community. However, it is important to recognise that refugee situations not only have humanitarian consequences but also are the result of political actions and have deep consequences for politics and security.Arthur Helton, who was killed in the suicide bombing of the UN in Baghdad in August 2003, once wrote that “by solving refugee problems and dealing with the fears and insecurities that both give rise to refugees and animate refugee responses, we may begin to deal better with the insecurities that characterize the new century.”
Humanitarian actors alone cannot address the political dimensions of chronic and unresolved refugee problems. As long as discussions on these problems remain exclusively within the humanitarian community and do not engage the broader peace, security and development communities, they will be limited in their impact. Resolution will not be achieved easily or quickly but the return home of thousands of Sudanese to south Sudan from neighbouring countries in recent weeks shows that solutions can be found given the active engagement of all sectors of the international community.