About the Author: Todd Pierce works in the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Today is World Refugee Day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - that’s an organization, not a person – runs this event every year on June 20 as a way to draw attention to the situation of the world’s refugees. There will be events marking the day all over the world, including one hosted by First Lady Laura Bush at the White House.
Sadly, after a few years in which refugee numbers fell, they are on the rise again. This year UNHCR estimates that refugee numbers jumped from 9.9 to 11.4 million people. (Source: UNHCR’s 2007 Global Trends report.) Generally, the International community defines refugees as persons who have crossed a recognized international border and have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. So 11.4 million refugees doesn’t include internally displaced people, who are forced out of their homes but still remain in their home country. That number has risen from 24.4 million to 26 million in the past year, says the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
The U.S. government has long been the most generous contributor to refugee relief. We give more money to help refugees than any other country, funding programs in central Africa, the Middle East, the Burma-Thai border, Nepal, and many other parts of the world. Last year the U.S. taxpayer funded, through the State Department, over a billion dollars worth of programs to help refugees and other vulnerable migrants. These programs cover some things you’d expect, such as shelter (the famous blue and white tents you’ve seen on the news) and food.
The United States also promotes better health in refugee camps, and strives to reduce the mortality from diseases like malaria, diarrhea and acute respiratory illness. In order to get the most bang for our buck, most of our assistance goes through UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the International Organization for Migration. That way we avoid duplication of effort and get the money where it is most needed. The Bureau follows up these contributions fairly zealously, so that we know the money is being spent properly.
We also do a lot on the resettlement front, we work with UNHCR and our non-govenmental organization partners to identify refugees in need of resettlement. The United States resettles more refugees each year than all other 25 resettlement countries combined. Most of the refugees we resettle to the United States can’t go home or integrate locally. As a country where 20% of the world’s migrants reside, our experience has taught us that our country has benefited from immigration generally and the contributions refugees make and that admitting them is the right thing to do. This year President Bush has authorized up to 70,000 refugees to come to the United States; many will be fleeing violence in Burma, Iraq and other troubled spots.
The UNHCR chose “protection” as the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day event. That means protection from violence, of course, and protection from the elements (those tents again). It also means protection from persecution and other harm, which is unfortunately widespread. Humanitarian workers, who are on the front line of refugee relief, also need protection: no longer are they always considered neutral parties by warring factions. Last year’s disgraceful al Qaeda attack on the UNHCR offices in Algiers, and the kidnappings of humanitarian workers in Iraq, showed that even purely charitable enterprises are not immune from terrorist threat.
At the White House event, refugees from Iraq, from Burma and from the Democratic Republic of Congo will speak about their experiences in their home countries, and countries of first asylum and how the resettlement experience went here. Even with the generosity of the communities where they found themselves, and the resilience of most refugees, resettling in another country – and cutting your ties to your country – can be a tough experience. Their success here, however, is the best type of encouragement for those of us in the State Department who work on refugee issues.