Monday, June 22, 2009

Remembering fellow refugees

By T.P.Mishra
It may be quite astonishing for the readers to know that this writer was forced to leave Bhutan at the age of six abandoning everything. When my family finally decided to leave Bhutan, nothing except the protection and shelter were important for us. There are fellow-countrymen, young and of growing ages, who are born in the camps and have never seen Bhutan, but are still longing to go back. Every year on June 20, all the exiled Bhutanese in eastern Nepal have been celebrating the World Refugee Day with a hope that they don't have to repeat it the next year. Sadly, despite having drastic changes in the world ranging from regional politics to top global events, the hope of getting back to Bhutan has remained unchanged for almost two decades.

Many people regard refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in a normal manner, without having understood the real struggle they are forced to face. In fact, refugees also have hopes and dreams like the ordinary people but no means to bring them into reality. They are always with a genuine claim for nationality, proper identity and dignity, which only a section of such people acquires. Besides, moral support and emotional safeguards to reduce their trauma are other vital elements, which the refugees are searching to live a meaningful life.

Internal conflict, ethnic cleansing, war, natural calamities and political suppression are some of the major causes to drive citizens from one nation to another for safety and protection. Whenever people leave their hometowns forcibly without knowing the actual time for return, uncertainty, depression and psychological torture become a part of life depending on the calculated diet from the international community. In such stages, education, entertainment and health become the secondary needs.

The 2008 Global Trends released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the largest refugee caring agency, shows the number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of December 2008. The total includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers, and 26 million IDPs, uprooted within their territories. According to the UNHCR's statistics, among recent displacement crises, up to 2 million people have been displaced from Pakistan alone last year mostly due to violence between the government and militant forces while about same number of refugees and IDPs were able to return home.

There are refugees who have made the refugee camps their permanent homes since they have been dwelling there for generations. A few years back hundreds of Afghan refugees, who were taken back to Afghanistan by the UN Refugee Agency, returned to refugee camps in Pakistan since the camps were more comfortable for them to stay. Younger generations, who were born and brought up in the camps, having no experience of outside a fixed periphery, could not work in Afghanistan to begin their new life while octogenarians found their fertile lands and farms converted into deserts. So, the refugee camps became a Hobson's choice for those Afghan refugees.

Not only the UNHCR, there are several other aid-organizations around the world assisting refugees and IDPs. They manage food, shelter and protection for refugees. These aid agencies are supported by the developed countries and many donor groups making direct or material supports as per the requirement. Such material and financial supports help refugees to sustain their life, something getting a new-birth from horrible livelihood. There are countries and active organizations, which have developed and practiced good mechanisms for allowing refugees to have access to all sorts of facilities and opportunities like the legal citizens. This means there are both, the worst and the best places for refugees. In some cases, fundamental changes in their home countries end the dangers that have forced them to flee and overtly forcible return remain rare. Many refugees, however, suffer insecurity, threats of refoulement, detention, and decades of enforced idleness and restrictions on movement and normal life in countries of asylum, casting doubt on whether their return is truly voluntary. Sometimes they are even arrested and physically tortured or deported to the country of origin.

When repatriation of refugees is not congenial, impossible or may take a long time, many developed countries are legally taking refugees to make them economically strong, educated and help them rebuild their lives. Millions of refugees have chosen such option and also contributed for development and other aspects, both in the resettling countries and the country of origin. Some refugees even get locally integrated in a host country when going back home becomes a distant dream.
Refugees are not creatures forced to enjoy a small world under ramshackle plastic sheds, bamboo huts or an open sky, but are people like dignified citizens of a country forced to leave their place. They have reasons to choose such a horrible part of human life, mostly meant to struggle for betterment, safety, protection, identity and honour. So, let us stand in a refugee hut for a while and think what are the needs and concerns, thanks to the UNHCR for keeping this year's theme for World Refugee Day as 'Real People, Real Needs'.