REFUGEES SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
By Ruud Lubbers
Ruud Lubbers is U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and former prime
minister of the Netherlands. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner
for Refugees won the Nobel peace prize in 1981.
GENEVA -- For those who help the world's dispossessed, there are few
sights more gratifying than a newly closed refugee camp. I recently visited
one such site in Pakistan shortly after the last Afghan refugees had loaded
their belongings onto trucks and set off for home, ending two decades
What was once a bustling but impoverished refugee settlement had suddenly
become a desolate ghost town, its mud-walled houses stripped of every
roof beam, window frame, door and stove pipe. Nothing of possible value
was left behind. The departing Afghans knew they were returning to a country
devastated by years of war, drought and economic ruin and would need all
the help they could get.
Voluntary repatriation, known in humanitarian-speak as the ''preferred
durable solution'' for refugees, is about as close as we get to a happy
ending in an otherwise sad business. Two other durable solutions -- integration
in the country of first asylum or resettlement to a third country -- are
sought when refugees cannot go back to their home countries. Over the
last two years, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped
find such solutions for nearly 4 million people, including some 2 million
Afghans who have gone home this year alone. In 2001, the number of people
of concern to my office fell from 21.8 million worldwide on Jan. 1 to
19.8 million by year's end. So far this year, the positive trend has continued.
UNHCR and its partners are now pursuing some new initiatives to find lasting
solutions for even more of the world's refugees. One of these approaches
focuses on improving the long-term prospects for successful repatriation
and reintegration, while another seeks to bring more help and new hope
to those languishing in exile for years on end. In Afghanistan and other
post-conflict situations, we are working to ensure that when refugees
make the brave choice to go home, they get the help they need to get back
on their feet. That means support not only in the initial stages of return
and reintegration, but throughout the longer-term development phase when
UNHCR scales down and others take over.
Although crucial, the return and reintegration of refugees are just the
first steps in rebuilding a conflict-torn society. Once refugees have
arrived home, UNHCR helps them reintegrate through activities that can
range from providing shelter repair kits and fixing local water systems
to offering micro-credit schemes. In theory, these ''humanitarian'' activities
wind down as the longer term ''development'' programs of other agencies
speed up. In practice, however, there are often glaring gaps in this transition
process that can leave returnees in a very vulnerable position. Sometimes,
UNHCR has found itself working in a vacuum, with no one to whom it can
hand over its activities. In other situations, humanitarian and development
agencies have worked largely in isolation, with little effort made to
incorporate returnees into longer term rehabilitation and reconstruction
plans. Such gaps can lead to renewed instability and even new displacement.
To better bridge this crucial transition phase, UNHCR has devised the
so-called ''4Rs approach'' (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation
and reconstruction) and is working with the World Bank, the U.N. Development
Program, the World Food Program, UNICEF and others on a series of pilot
projects. These projects -- in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and
Eritrea -- are aimed at fostering a smoother transition from the initial
humanitarian-led stages right on through to the development phases in
post-conflict situations, ensuring that returnee needs are covered throughout.
Making sure that refugees can go home and stay home is challenging enough.
But what can be done for the millions of displaced people worldwide who
are still waiting for a solution after years or even decades in exile?
First, we need to focus on helping them in their regions of origin. While
rich countries voice increasing concern over the numbers of people arriving
on their borders, it is actually the poor nations that provide asylum
to most of the world's refugees. Over the past decade, developing countries
produced 86 percent of the world's refugees, but also provided asylum
for seven out of 10 of them. Both statistics underscore the vital need
to invest in solutions for refugees in their regions of origin, including
through what I call ''development through local integration.''
In poor countries worldwide, millions of refugees and displaced people
live in abject poverty, often in remote and insecure areas. They have
few opportunities for self-sufficiency and are almost entirely dependent
on humanitarian aid. Surrounding communities are usually not much better
off. Little wonder, then, that refugees go in search of help elsewhere.
But despite the obvious advantages of investing in refugee problems at
the source, rich countries are reducing assistance for many refugee programs.
It is shameful that humanitarian work aimed at assisting some of the world's
most vulnerable people -- refugees -- remains so grossly under-funded.
Moreover, development aid for the poor nations that host most of these
refugees is minimal. The productive potential of refugees, including those
in protracted exile, is enormous and needs to be tapped. Rather than treating
them simply as a burden, we need to recognize that they can be agents
of development. By channeling development funds to projects in the poor,
remote areas where many refugees are housed, both the surrounding community
and the refugees benefit.
One concrete example of development through local integration is in Zambia,
where efforts to enable refugees to become self-sufficient through agricultural
projects and small businesses have led to several beneficial spinoffs
in the local economy as well. No one should be overlooked in the search
for solutions, including the very small group of seemingly forgotten refugees
I recently met in Saudi Arabia's remote Rafha refugee camp. Set up after
the Gulf War, Rafha initially held more than 30,000 Iraqi refugees. Twelve
years later, most of them have been resettled in third countries. But
there are still about 5,200 left -- a mere handful in global terms --
who desperately need to get on with their lives.
UNHCR is currently working with the Saudi government on a plan to find
resettlement for some of them and local integration for the rest. When
we succeed, Rafha's closure will go largely unnoticed by the world. But
for those who walk out of its gates for the last time, it will mark the
beginning of a new life.
(c) 2002, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/18/02)
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