Opinion: A Poor Record for the Rich | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.06.2005
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Opinion: A Poor Record for the Rich

As the globe marks World Refugee Day on Monday, rich western nations have no reason to pat themselves on the back. Many poorer countries are shouldering much more of the burden, says DW's Helle Jeppesen.


The western world's not eager to take them in

A refugee is a person who, "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to return to it."

Last year, 9.2 million people around the globe fit this definition from the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. If one removes the phrase "outside the country of his nationality," the number quickly jumps much higher: Including refugees that remain inside their country, about 20 to 25 million people are on the run worldwide. Many are seeking refuge in countries that don't even have enough resources to support their own population.

Closing borders

Ausländerbehörde Hamburg

"Asylum distribution" reads the sign in an office in Hamburg's immigration office

What are the relatively wealthy industrialized nations doing to help ease the problem? Not much, really. Countries that take democracy, freedom of speech and human rights for granted close their borders to those outside.

A country like Germany can take credit for being more generous than the US when it comes to taking in refugees -- about 877,000 refugees are currently living in Germany while there are only 421,000 in the US.

But some poor countries are doing much more: Iran, for example, has accepted more than a million refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. Pakistan hosts 961,000 people and Tanzania more than 600,000.

Zelte werden aufgeschlagen

Jordanian workers and members of various international humanitarian organizations work as they set up tents at a refugee camp for possible Iraqi refugees near the far eastern Jordanian town of Al- Ruweishid, some 50 kilometers from the Jordanian-Iraqi border on March 22, 2003

These numbers should make the richer countries feel ashamed, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The EU, for example, is closing its external borders. African refugees keep trying to cross the Mediterranean in shaky, tiny boats in order to reach the promised EU land. Many capsize and no one will ever know how many have died on their journey.

A shameful excuse

One commonly used argument to back the closure of borders seems cynical, that is, the case that most refugees are fleeing their country for economic reasons. That sounds as if the hope for a modest future is already a criminal act. But even the so-called "legal" refugees -- those who seek shelter because they are being persecuted at home -- are often turned away.

Flüchtling Frauen in Darfur

Sudanese displaced women are silhouetted at Abu Shouk camp, in North Darfur, Sudan in 2004, where more than 40,000 displaced people received food and shelter from international aid agencies

If they have come from a so-called third country, they're supposed to seek asylum there and not in the country where they finally applied for asylum. But most refugees come from places that are far away from Europe and especially the continent's central countries. A lot of third countries lie on the way. All of this is even more shameful when one realizes that there isn't much money available for those who work with refugees. Governments announce big gestures when shocking pictures from Darfur dominate the international media. But those gestures better not cost a lot. The UN's refugee agency recently realized this in March. It only received $1.5 million (1.23 million euros) for a $30-million project to help refugees in Darfur. It's a poor showing by the rich.

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