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The Facts

new internationalist
issue 223 - September 1991


The numbers of official refugees now stands at a record 15 million - more than half of whom are children. This is double the number a decade ago.1 Over the past 10 years an average of over 3,000 people a day have been forced to leave their homes.2 But adequate provision for them is dwindling.2


For the past 40 years Western governments have offered asylum to refugees but now the doors are likely to be slammed shut.

. Growing numbers of people are seeking asylum in Europe. The figure rose from 13,000 in 1972 to 420,000 in 1990 - nearly half of them to West Germany.

. Refugees comprise only 0.17% of Western Europe's population.9

. The number of people being granted refugee status in Western Europe is declining. The average rate of recognition in Europe between 1983 and 1987 was 35% and a further 20% were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds. The rest were rejected.10

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While the numbers of refugees are increasing, government contributions to the international agencies set up to provide for refugees are not keeping pace.

. Between 1985 and 1989 the world's refugees increased by 50% while the total spending on refugees increased by just 32% and overseas assistance in general increased by only 7%. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' budget increased by only 25%.3

[image, unknown] . The Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spent $497 million in 1980 and $550 million in 1990 - an increase of just 10% in 10 years which is a significant decline in real terms.4 In 1985 UNHCR total expenditure was $46 per head on each refugee. By 1989 it had fallen to $385

. Government contributions to UNHCR have been steadily falling in relative terms. In 1985 the single largest donor (the US) contributed 27% of the UNHCR budget, but only 22% in 1989. More importantly, the US Migration and Refugee Assistance budget provided $20 per refugee in 1985 but now only provides half that amount.3




People who have been made homeless within their own countries are not included in official figures on refugees although estimates suggest they number over 30 million.

The following table shows selected countries in which large numbers of people have been displaced internally as a result of human conflict or forced relocations. They are not usually eligible for international refugee help and no agency is responsible for keeping track of them. Figures are estimates.7

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Asylum-seeker: One who seeks a safe refuge. International law recognizes the right of a person to seek asylum but does not oblige states to provide it.

Internally displaced: Those forced to leave their homes but who, because they remain within the borders of their own country, are not officially recognized as refugees. Their numbers probably exceed those of official refugees. No specific international agency is mandated to meet their needs and they are often sent home against their will.

Non-refoulement: Laid down by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, this is the most fundamental principle that protects refugees from being sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be at risk.

Refugee: The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines them as 'Persons who are outside their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a political social group or political opinion'. This definition was primarily devised to apply to refugees in Europe who had fled from events which occurred before 1951 - though in 1967 a Protocol was introduced to extend its benefits to refugees in other parts of the world.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: The main United Nations agency to protect and assist refugees and to find 'permanent solutions' for them. Set up in 1950, it is funded by voluntary contributions mainly from UN member states and regional groups like the European Community. It normally acts when invited to do so by host governments by providing funds to government organizations and voluntary agencies. Palestinian refugees however do not fall within the UNHCR's mandate. They are assisted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).




Poor Third World countries are far more generous in offering asylum to refugees than rich Western ones. This diagram shows refugees in relation to population9

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Many people are so desperate to escape poverty or persecution that they enter Western countries illegally. Such immigration is increasing.

. Three million Mexicans, Salvadoreans and other illegal immigrants lodged applications for 'normalization' under the recent regularization programme in the US.11

. Italy hosts over one million illegal immigrants from countries bordering Europe, and Spain hosts an estimated 300,000.11

. Switzerland estimates that there are 110,000 people unlawfully in the country.11

. Japan has 50,000 to 100,000 workers from neighbouring countries including the People's Republic of China.11

Known and estimated numbers of people who
are illegally present in selected EC countries.

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Over one million people were arrested trying to enter the US illegally in 1990; most were Mexicans fleeing poverty. At least 15 people were shot and killed along the US border in 1990.13

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1 British Refugee Council, 1991.
2 Save the Children Fund, Information Bulletin, 1991.
3 US Committee for Refugees, 1990.
4 Nicholas Morris, UNHCR, 1990.
5 Roger P Winter, Director of US Committee for Refugees.
6 Overseas assistance fund from the US Migration and Refugee Account. House Select Committee on Hunger, US, 1990.
7 United States Committee for Refugees, December, 1990.
8 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1991.
9 Quoted in Refugees in Europe, Minority Rights Group, 1990.
10 According to one UNHCR memorandum from 1988, quoted op cit.
11 Quoted by Jonas Widgren in International Affairs,Vol 66, October 1990.
12 Some Economic, Social and Human Rights Considerations Concerning the Future Status of Third Country Nationals in the Single European Market, WR Bohning and J Werquin, International Labour Organization, 1990.
13 Washington Post, December 11, 1990.
14 Refugee Report, December 21, 1990.

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