Refugee profiles regarding MSF's concerns on refugees
13 December 2001
AFGHANISTAN: Abdul, 59 years old, internally displaced person. "I left my village 13 months ago. Today I live the M65 camp for displaced people in Mazar-I-Sharif. We live a slow death. Everything is bad. We have practically nothing. We don't have any shelter either. Many people have died here over the past months. The others survive thanks to assistance. I am worried because our future is bleak and sad because of the drought and the instability in the country. I prefer to die if our life does not improve." Afghanistan has more than half a million internally displaced people, and between three and six million refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Its recent history of war, ethnic/religious persecution and environmental collapse have driven its inhabitants in all directions. One group resorted to air piracy to escape the country, many more have lost everything trying to save their families. These people have been largely abandoned to their fate, held hostage within their own country during the recent intense fighting. The Taleban authorities restricted access to them. Neighbouring countries shut their borders, trapping an innocent population in violent conflict stimulated by foreign powers. Iran, which had a huge burden of refugees already, shot people trying to cross their borders. It already had a policy of pressuring existing Afghan refugees to go home. Pakistan saw Afghans as a security threat and tried to restrict any camps to the most inappropriate border sites. It preferred to call them "externally displaced people", the most telling corruption of language in the service of irresponsibility. In part these states have been forced to take these positions because of the lack of international help in managing their huge refugee populations over the past decades, creating massive internal social problems. The international "anti-terrorist coalition" was happy that it would not be receiving any asylum seekers either. Those people who managed to get out are now faced with pressure to return, despite the continuing dangers in the country. The right to choose when to go back will be secondary to the desire of other countries to create a "normal" Afghanistan. CHECHNYA: Zara, 37, an internally displaced Chechen in Ingushetia, Russia. "Before arriving in this 'tent city' called Aki-Yourti, we lived in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. When the houses were bombed I was very scared. The children, despite their age, were already experiencing a second war. "My neighbour helped us to leave Grozny. I chose this village to take refuge in Ingushetia because I had heard that there were many Chechens and it was the closest place to Chechnya. We spent the months of October, November and December 1999 in an empty tent, without even a mattress and without electricity or gas. We were hungry and cold. But I never though the war would last so long." The Russian campaign to reoccupy the Chechen republic has forced 250,000 civilians from their homes, many of whom have taken refuge into neighbouring Ingushetia. Because the Russian authorities insist that the conflict is an internal matter - a question of suppressing terrorists within the Russian Federation - they classify all Chechens outside their republic as displaced. So the mandate of the UNHCR is limited and the full rights of refugee status are withheld. The Federal authorities are now refusing to register newly arrived Chechens for any entitlements, describing them as economic migrants. Many people are therefore surviving illegally in inhuman conditions, under the permanent threat of forced return to Chechnya. Meanwhile, the savagery of the war and the extreme insecurity in the whole region has restricted the help that aid agencies can give to the Chechen people. COLOMBIA: James, 50, a Colombian refugee in Spain. "The guerrillas accused me of not wanting to collaborate with them and I was taken prisoner. I was tortured during my captivity, which lasted 95 days. They cut off one of my hands and slashed the other. Finally, one of my captors took pity on me and helped me to get away. "It was a doctor who then helped me to leave the country. I took a plane to Madrid. Although I want peace to return to Colombia more than anything, I am not optimistic about the future of my country. Here, in Madrid, I feel safe." In Colombia, violence is blind, daily and widespread. Armed groups are everywhere; some oppose the government, others extort money, and some take over districts, while others simply want to protect themselves. The government's army uses the same brutal methods against civilians. There are some two million people displaced internally by the violence. The international community pays little attention to this because the war is not recognised as such. Regional states, Venezuela and Panama, have sent Colombian refugees back. James was lucky to be given refugee status. He probably would not have received it in Germany, where refugee status is granted only if the applicant fled State persecution. GUINEA/SIERRA LEONE: "Mary", 36, Sierra Leonean refugee in Guinea. "I was put in prison for two days by the Guinean army for no reason and my property was looted. There were more than 500 refugees - men, women and children. They used the ends of their guns to beat us. We were given no food or water. According to the President of Guinea, the refugees had brought war into their country. Since that time, I am left with nothing and I'm finding my way back to my own country. I want to go." Sierra Leone's decade of mutinies, civil war and savagery has forced hundreds of thousands of its citizens to seek sanctuary in neighbouring Guinea. A year ago, the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone pushed across the border into the areas of the refugee camps and clashed with the Guinean army. The refugees were caught in the cross-fire, preyed upon by the RUF and persecuted by the Guinean authorities, who suspected they were helping or hiding the RUF. Guinea's President Conte accused them directly of undermining his country, so raising ethnic tensions and provoking violence against the refugees by civilians and the military. The principle of voluntary return to "safe areas" of Sierra Leone was barely recognisable. Conditions for the refugees were made so impossible that even the dangers of the chronic instability in their homeland were made to seem preferable.