Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, June 20

World Refugee Day

In an interview commemorating World Refugee Day today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, warned that conditions for asylum seekers worldwide have worsened due to changes in immigration policies accompanying the War on Terror. Mr. Guterres noted that western countries’ policies, which are meant to keep out terrorists, often keep out people who are genuinely seeking asylum as well.

Of the fifteen countries that welcome the largest number of refugees, at least ten have changed their immigration policies since 2001. Some countries restricted the benefits of various visas available to asylum seekers, such as protection visas, temporary humanitarian visas, temporary visas, and return pending visas.

New rules approved in Australia in 2001 divided residents into two categories: those who were resident in Australia before 2001, and those who arrived in Australia after 2001, allotting fewer benefits to the new arrivals. Regulations passed by the Council of the European Union in 2002 require that all asylum seekers be vetted for any contact to terrorist organizations before being granted refugee status.

A number of advocacy groups argue that the recent immigration reform proposals in the United States will have a negative effect on asylum seekers, allowing immigration officers to detain refugees for extended periods of time and to bar from asylum and prosecute any refugee who used a false document to escape his or her country.

UNHCR estimates that 40 million people are currently living away from home because they fled from violence and persecution. About one fourth of the world’s refugees and displaced people come from Africa. Although the total number of refugees decreased by 12 percent from 2005 to 2006, the number of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, increased by 22 percent in the same period. One reason for the decrease in the global number of refugees is that 1.1 million refugees went home voluntarily in 2005, including 752,000 to Afghanistan and 70,000 to Liberia. In contrast, the increase in IDPs is due to the violence in Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia, conflicts that have displaced about 1.6 million, 1.4 million and 400,000 people respectively.

In other refugee news, just three days before World Refugee Day on June 17, the British aid agency Oxfam announced that it was permanently pulling out of the largest refugee camp in Darfur due to security concerns. The refugee camp, Gereida, houses about 130,000 people. Oxfam was one of the largest aid agencies operating in the camp.