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new internationalist
issue 223 - September 1991

The Dispossessed
Refugees are headline news these days. Yet Western governments
are making holes in the world’s safety net for the dispossessed.
What is going on? Sue Shaw explains.

I was reading my daily paper, when the following article caught my eye: ‘A sick six-stone Kurdish man who tried to seek political asylum in Britain has been deported in handcuffs without his case being considered by the Home Office.

‘He was shipped out after spending 10 days in prison, four days in custody and going on hunger strike in protest at his treatment by the British immigration service.

‘Huseyin Ustun’s offence was to have arrived in Britain on 27 May having travelled overland from Turkey where his family say he was imprisoned and subjected to police brutality for supporting the cause of Kurdish separatism…

‘His family claim he is likely to be imprisoned on his return…’ Meanwhile, the article went on, UK Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was about to announce legislation further tightening controls on refugees attempting to enter Britain.1

It was a smallish story, just another in the papers’ daily catalogue of woe. But it struck a particular chord with me. Because in 1939 my mother, Hannah, and her parents also needed refuge – not from the Turkish Government, but from Hitler’s extermination programme which threatened all Jews in Nazi Germany.

Fortunately my mother and her parents managed to get sponsored by an English businessman. And with just the things they could carry and fifteen shillings between them, they caught the boat to England. Like millions who were not so lucky, my great-grandmother disappeared and was never heard of again.

The tragedy of those who did not survive Hitler’s purge is immeasurable.

But however fortuitous my mother’s escape, refugee life was hard. Hannah was six years old. And as if the trauma of leaving her friends and family was not bad enough, immediately she arrived in England her father was placed in a hostel and later interned leaving my grandmother to earn her living as a mother’s help.

During those war years people were too frightened or ignorant to distinguish between the enemy and their victims – especially when both spoke German. At school Hannah was an outsider, the ‘Gerry’, the one whose mother could not afford the correct school uniform. Many could not believe that Hitler was really doing such awful things to Jews. And my family were often dismissed as scroungers who should have stayed at home.

This hostility more than anything left lasting scars – as it continues to do to increasing numbers of people living out their exile in unwelcoming regions of the globe. Like the five million Afghans who fled state terror across their country’s borders. Pakistan alone harbours over three million.2 Officially Africa has six million2 refugees – but unofficially another 13 million or more are thought to be displaced.3

No-one knows the exact numbers because most dispossessed people are not easily categorized. Official figures relate to ‘refugees’ which are specified as ‘persons who are outside their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution’. But excluded from this definition are the vast majority who either remain in their own countries or have been uprooted by other catastrophes like famine or flooding.

"There is no sorrow above
the loss of a native land."

In 1951 when the definition was devised it accurately described the world’s two million exiles who were mainly in Europe, uprooted during the Second World War. Since then the global picture has changed dramatically – the result of poverty, wars and human rights abuses. Today, a staggering 15 million refugees4 and maybe 30 million more internally displaced3 people have emerged. Most are in the Third World. And their numbers are multiplying.

Poverty uproots millions ever year, triggered by pressures in the global economy. Today’s Third World refugee problem began as new states emerged from colonialism in the 1950s burdened by conditions that had been created by colonizing powers – artificial boundaries, fragile national identities and distorted economies. Not surprisingly conflicts ensued driving people from their homes.

The debt crisis made things worse. When oil prices rocketed in the mid 1970s and prices for primary exports fell, Third World countries were left struggling to repay massive loans they had taken from the West. Today, recession has forced most poor countries to adopt austerity programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund to ensure that the commercial banks are repaid.

These measures hit the poor hardest, and poverty contrives to drive many from rural farms to the squalor of urban shanty towns. Millions have also been evicted from their land to make way for cash crops, hydro-electric schemes or highways.

Crowded onto marginal land, these exiles survive by destroying the environment, hacking down forests and over-farming the earth. Finally under the pressure of their growing numbers the soil stops yielding and they are forced to move on.

Floods, droughts and starvation follow in their wake rendering more homeless every year. Famines and droughts have triggered massive migrations in the Horn of Africa causing one and a half million people to leave their homes in the Sudan alone during the 1980s.5 Ethiopia’s General Mengistu added to the crisis by forcing thousands to move as part of his re-villagization programme, while simultaneously spending vast sums on a war against portions of his own population.

Wars – and especially civil wars – drive more people from their homes than any other single factor. There are possibly more of these civil wars today than at any other time in history. From Sri Lanka to the Philippines to El Salvador, bombings, shootings and campaigns of terror decimate communities sending survivors fleeing for their lives.

These refugees of conflict are particularly desperate and vulnerable. Take the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Many of those in Chenar Camp have paid their life’s savings to the guides who smuggled them across the border.

Those most at risk are the women, children and old people. The elderly in particular find it hard to adapt: dramatic change disorientates them. Bereaved and traumatized by bombings and other atrocities, they spend their days gazing longingly towards the Khyber Pass nursing sad memories of their homeland. With nothing to show for ten years of struggle and most family members dead, there is little joy ahead.

The women are particularly isolated, losing their traditional network of women friends and relatives – and living as captives of their menfolk in often violent and oppressive camps. The situation is far worse in many other camps in the world where members of vulnerable groups give up, fall sick and die due to overwork, inadequate food and lack of health care.

The camps may be hell but at least the host countries are trying. Pakistan hosts the largest concentration of refugees in the world while one million Mozambican refugees find refuge within tiny Malawi’s borders. In the case of Malawi the situation is dire. Most of the children are malnourished and lethal epidemic diseases like cholera are rife. (See below)

Many countries however, are openly hostile to refugees and threaten mass repatriations. Malaysia and other south-east Asian states have already towed many Vietnamese boat people back to sea. And rumours that some 40,000 more will soon be deported send waves of panic around the overflowing detention camps of Hong Kong.

"Everyone is quick to blame the alien."

Others who are often rejected are the asylum-seekers. And the world’s richest nations are guilty of returning many to possible torture and death every year. No wonder some prefer a quick end – like the Iranian who jumped from an eighth floor window rather than be extradited from Spain back to Iran. Or the two Kurdish asylum-seekers who died at a UK detention centre after setting their room ablaze in protest at their treatment by immigration authorities.6

We never hear about the distress of most however, for their escape efforts are derailed long before they reach the West. Many cannot obtain visas – now frequently required by potential host countries. Others are hauled bodily off planes by crews who fear being fined for carrying undocumented passengers. And some reach their destination – only be turned back at the airport because they haven’t got the required return flight and survival funds.

But the desperate are ever resourceful – especially in crossing borders. Three million crept out of hiding to be regularized during the US’s recent amnesty on illegal immigrants, while at least one million illegal foreigners hustle a living in Italy, Spain and Greece.

Many arrive broke, having paid their all – up to $5,000 a head for a European country – to traffickers who smuggled them in.7 And this price will probably rise as increasing numbers confront a ‘fortress Europe’. For plans to open borders between European Community countries by the end of 1992 will most likely mean hauling up the drawbridge on Third Worlders. Soon their only legal excuse to pass immigration will probably be as workers – no families allowed. Faced with the rise of some very ugly right-wing political movements in Europe asylum-seekers might anyway wish themselves at home.

The US is more generous towards asylum-seekers than Europe. But which illegal immigrant to the US today would not grimace at the inscription beneath the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest- tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door’.

Most Western governments seem to be doing their best to extinguish the lamp of asylum. But many ordinary people refuse to let it die. In the US, members of the highly organized Sanctuary Movement continue to assist escapees from war-torn and impoverished Latin American countries safely into the country.

And in various parts of Europe too, courageous individuals are providing ‘safe houses’ for those who have entered illegally because their cry for refuge will likely go unheeded by officials. Such movements may become increasingly important unless we can prevail upon our governments to recall their moral responsibility to the world and reinstate asylum with generosity. The West would do better to adopt a policy of orderly immigration rather than of closed doors. Cultural exchanges have long formed the mainspring of human progress and denying our civilization opportunities to cross-fertilize ideas and practices is cultural suicide.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning
to breathe free..."


Meanwhile it is surely in the West’s interests to reinstate their commitment to those international agencies that are set up to help refugees – like the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which in recent years has seen its budget slashed so much that when cholera attacked new arrivals of Mozambican refugees at one camp in Malawi, the organization could not even provide the cooking pots, buckets and soap necessary to fight the disease.

If UNHCR did have the resources to properly protect the world’s refugee population, it might staunch the growing influxes of poor and persecuted people that come begging at Western doors. For example it could more effectively help refugees who want to resettle their old homes. Like those who have returned to their native El Salvador to make their home in an abandoned cotton hacienda called El Gualcho.8 Today this group are transforming wilderness into a village with a school, fields and even a health centre.

Their efforts are sometimes hampered rather than helped by the international community, which prefers to fund high profile projects in health and education rather than infrastructure like housing – even though, argue community leaders, adequate buildings are necessary before other projects can start. Aid agencies need to listen more closely to what refugees want so that they can better target their help.

But the problem of displaced people will never go away so long as our governments continue to ignore the causes of inequality and injustice between North and South. Third World debts must be cancelled. Poor countries deserve a fair price for their exports. And the granting of aid and selling of arms must be made conditional on countries having good human rights records.

By moving towards a more equal sharing of the world’s resources, who knows? We might approach an ideal in which people everywhere could travel freely in response to pressures and opportunities in the world economy. As Pope John XXIII said in affirming the right to emigrate: ‘The fact that one is a citizen of a particular state should not prevent anybody from being a member of the human family as a whole, nor from having citizenship in the world community.’9

1 The Independent newspaper, London, 13.6.91
2 UNHCR, 1991.
3 US Committee for Refugees, 1991.
4 British Refugee Council, 1991. (UNHCR places the figure for the world’s refugees at 17 million with the internally displaced at a further 17 million).
5 Refugees: Dynamics of Displacement: a report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, (Zed Books, 1989).
6 Imagine There’s No Countries: 1992 and international immigration controls against migrants, immigrants and refugees by Steve Cohen, (Greater Manchester Immigration Unit, 1990).
7 Jonas Widgren, International Affairs, Vol.66, 1990.
8 From material by Mandy Macdonald.
9 Closed Borders: the Contemporary Assault on Freedom of Movement by Alan Dowty (Yale University Press, 1987).


The cost of hospitality
Impoverished Malawi is shouldering a burden that belongs to the
international community. Paddy Coulter reports.

Nowhere is the plight of refugees more acute than in Malawi where one million Mozambicans resort to piecework, grubbing for edible insects or gathering weeds and fungi to eke out inadequate refugee rations. ‘There is never enough,’ says one, ‘if you haven’t managed to get piecework to buy flour, you just have to go hungry.’

Despite their efforts up to half of the refugee children in Malawi are chronically malnourished. Last year an epidemic of the vitamin deficiency disease, pellagra, was only controlled by emergency provisions of tablets, while cholera is universal.

With great resourcefulness many of the refugees have started small businesses making crafts or doing woodwork. Like 51 year-old Tambala Chombi who supplements food rations for his family of five by making raffia palm furniture, crossing the border monthly to forage for raw materials: ‘If a soldier sees me I’m dead,’ he says. ‘That’s why I don’t go so often.’

Along with millions of other refugees worldwide, Tambala is paying for the international communities’ indifference – forced to risk his life because their systems of support are collapsing.

Chief of these is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up to protect and assist refugees, and to find permanent solutions for them. Totally dependent on voluntary annual subscriptions from Western governments, it is now in crisis because donor governments are scrimping.

They started tightening their fists in 1989 leaving UNHCR short of $150 million. The decline continued: in 1980 UNHCR had a spending budget of $497 million; 10 years later $550 million – representing an increase of a miserly 10 per cent over a decade in which refugee numbers doubled. Last year the biggest single donor, the US, effectively halved its funding per refugee, leaving the world’s most impoverished countries to shoulder an impossible burden.

In parts of Malawi Mozambicans now outnumber local people. More keep coming – 20,000 alone in recent months – while Malawi, fourth poorest nation in the world, struggles to provide asylum for the equivalent of one in ten of its population.

Roads are ploughed up by lorries carrying relief supplies. Harvest yields are falling because of increased pressure on cultivable land. Costs to the country’s infrastructure and its civil service alone were around $25 million in 1988/89. And the international community shows few signs of relenting.

Paddy Coulter is the director of the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) and co-producer of ‘The Dispossessed’ television series with Yorkshire TV.

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