Refugees and displacement
MILLIONS UPROOTED BY FEAR AND VIOLENCERefugees are often in the headlines yet the reality of their lives is frequently misunderstood.
Tens of millions of people have been uprooted from their homes because of violence or persecution.
But not all these people are refugees. Villagers in Sudan's violent Darfur region who have fled to camps within Darfur are strictly speaking known as internally displaced people because they haven't left Sudan. Darfuris in camps in neighbouring Chad are refugees because they've crossed an international border.
The definition of a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality..." (1951 Refugee Convention)
Although the convention doesn't specifically deal with people fleeing war, or conflict-related conditions such as famine, the United Nations considers them refugees.
ARE NUMBERS RISING OR FALLING?Contrary to many media reports, the global refugee population has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s when it hit a peak - over 17.8 million - partly due to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
However, this is not quite the good news it seems. The mass exodus from the Iraq war saw figures begin to creep up again in 2006 and 2007.
And with more and more internal conflicts replacing interstate wars, the number of internally displaced has risen significantly in recent years.
By the end of 2007, there were around 11.4 million refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR - the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Roughly 26 million others were displaced within their own countries because of violence or persecution, according to a U.N.-backed report by the Norwegian Refugee Council. And UNHCR says another 25 million were uprooted because of disasters like quakes and floods.
Aid workers call these internally displaced people "IDPs" for short, sometimes distinguishing between conflict IDPs and disaster IDPs.
The media often employs the term refugee incorrectly to describe economic migrants or illegal immigrants.
Economic migrants leave a country voluntarily to seek a better life. If they returned home they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees would not.
REFUGEES AND IDPS - WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?Refugees and IDPs have often fled for the same reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the two groups are treated.
Once they cross an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions.
The U.N. refugee agency and other humanitarian organisations work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives or eventually return home.
By contrast, IDPs have little, if any, of the protection and help that refugees get. The domestic government, which may view them as enemies of the state, retains control of their fate. They may also fall prey to rebels and militias operating inside or outside the camp.
There are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs and no U.N. body dedicated to their needs. Donors may also be unwilling to offer help if it means intervening in internal conflicts.
There's widespread debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR is not specifically mandated to cover their needs, but as they face many of the same problems as refugees, the agency oversees their protection and shelter in some places.
REFUGEE CRISESIn a crisis most refugees do not head to the West - they head over the nearest border. For many years Pakistan has hosted the largest number of refugees, taking in millions of people who have fled violence in Afghanistan.
However, large numbers have returned since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Refugee experts say it is likely that Afghanistan will soon be overtaken by Iraq as the source of the greatest number of refugees.
Rough U.N. estimates at the end of 2007 suggested at least 4.4 million Iraqis had been forced to flee their homes. Around 2 million of these had fled to Syria or Jordan, whose schools, hospitals and public services are becoming seriously overstretched.
Developing countries host far more refugees than Western countries do. For example, Chad, one of the world's poorest countries, is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflicts in Darfur and Central African Republic. The influx is putting pressure on scarce water and food resources.
People who apply for refugee status normally need to establish individually that their fear of persecution is well-founded.
However, individual screening may be impossible during mass exoduses sparked by crises like Darfur or Kosovo. In such circumstances, it may be appropriate to give everyone in the group refugee status in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
IDP CRISESThree conflicts in Sudan - the recently ended civil war in the south, fighting in Darfur in the west and unrest in eastern Sudan - have resulted in massive internal displacement of over 5.3 million, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
That's nearly twice as many people as the number living in the U.S. city of Chicago. Or the combined populations of Paris and Madrid.
Conflicts in Colombia, Somalia and Sri Lanka have also created massive internal displacement. For figures have a look at the IDMC's table.
There can be large discrepancies in figures for displacement. The Colombian government estimates almost 2 million have been displaced while some human rights groups put the figure at nearly 4 million.
Governments may give lower numbers for political reasons while pressure groups may bump them up.
DANGERSArriving at a camp for refugees or IDPs does not ensure safety. Violence may come from militias and rebels operating inside or outside the camps.
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide large numbers of Hutus fled into Democratic Republic of Congo. It took a while for aid organisations to realise that Hutu militia leaders blamed for the massacres of Rwandan Tutsis virtually controlled the camps.
Another example is the camps in West Timor for refugees who fled the violence sparked by East Timor's independence vote in 2000. These camps were teeming with pro-Jakarta militia. Attacks and intimidation got so bad that UNHCR was forced to suspend its work. The militia also stopped refugees who wanted to return home to East Timor from leaving the camps.
Militias are not the only problem. Camps may also come under attack from troops targeting rebels they think are sheltering inside. This has happened in Darfur.
Refugees may also end up in a country that is itself far from safe. In a horrifying case in 2004, armed men attacked a camp for Congolese refugees in Burundi, setting huts ablaze and killing around 160 people, mostly women and children.
Cross border attacks are another danger. Agencies often try to make sure camps aren't too close to borders, but refugees may want to be near the border so that they can go home as soon as it seems safe.
WOMENWomen face particular dangers when forced to flee their homes. They are at risk from sexual and physical violence both inside and outside camps.
Often separated from their husbands, they may be forced to take on the responsibility of providing for their families on top of their traditional roles.
Without agricultural land, they may have to leave camps to forage for food. In Darfur they have often been raped while on long trips to look for firewood.
And they may be forced to resort to prostitution to support their children. This is happening with Iraqi women who have fled to Syria. Some may have been tricked into the sex trade but many say they have no other means of supporting their family.
Many Iraqi refugee households are headed by women, their menfolk having been killed or stayed behind. Often women refugees will have used up all their savings just trying to get out of the country. They have no source of income and their bodies may be the only thing left they have to sell.
In Iraq itself there are reports of militants demanding sex in return for delivering clean water to camps.
Women may not even be safe within their families. There is strong evidence that domestic violence rises with displacement. Depression, unemployment and other stresses can lead men to take out their anger and frustration on women.
CHILDRENDisplaced children also face many dangers, especially if they have become separated from their families.
They risk abduction and recruitment by rebels or government forces, enslavement and sexual exploitation.
Displaced children also miss out on education. Experts estimate that about 45 percent of Colombia's displaced are school-age children and that most never return to the classroom.
Malnutrition levels are often high among displaced children and healthcare limited or lacking altogether.
HEALTHPoor nutrition, sanitary conditions, dirty water and lack of access to health services mean refugees and IDPs are prey to a host of diseases, most of them preventable.
Common ones include diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, measles and meningitis. Overcrowding in camps contributes to the spread of illness.
Many people displaced by a conflict or disaster also suffer trauma-related problems. Children may be particularly affected.
It is often forgotten that people fleeing war may have been tortured, raped or witnessed atrocities. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly recognising the importance of providing psycho-social help but support remains limited.
GOING HOMEMost refugees eventually hope to return home. But not everyone starts packing their belongings the minute a peace deal is signed.
Mass repatriations can create more problems than they solve if the home country doesn't have the capacity to absorb them.
Pakistan is keen to repatriate all remaining Afghan refugees as soon as it can, but Afghanistan lacks shelter, jobs, infrastructure and security.
If people return only to discover they have no house or job, analysts say they may join the Taliban out of resentment or be forced to join in order to survive. Others will simply return to Pakistan.
UNHCR has asked the international community to invest in infrastructure, shelter and livelihoods for returnees to prevent this happening.
Going home is rarely as straightforward as it sounds.
Returning refugees may find other people have taken over their land and/or home while they've been away. Ownership records may have been destroyed or never have existed.
And there may be nowhere to grow crops - after years of conflict the land may be overgrown or littered with landmines. Most Liberians returning home in 2005 after the end of the country's 14-year civil conflict arrived after the onset of the rainy season when it was too late to plant crops.
Public healthcare, schools, roads, water supplies and sanitation may all have fallen into disrepair or be non-existent.
Returns can also rekindle ethnic animosities and land disputes. And just because there's a peace deal doesn't mean the bloodshed is over. Look at Congo and East Timor.
Some people may not want to go home. Some residents in the camps in Pakistan have been there more than 25 years. The camps have clinics, schools and jobs; many of the villages they'd be returning to in Afghanistan have nothing.
Refugees may have no land or shelter to go back to and no means of immediately supporting themselves. Many of the younger people in the camps were actually born there - they've never set foot in Afghanistan.
RESETTLEMENTIn some cases refugees can't go home because they would face continued persecution. In such cases UNHCR tries to resettle them in the asylum country where they are living or in a third country.
Sixteen countries have established annual resettlement quotas whereby they take a certain number of refugees each year. Countries without quotas may consider individual cases, often because of family or cultural links.
Refugee experts say the U.S.-led global "war on terror" and tightened immigration procedures have hampered resettlement programmes.
THE FUTUREDespite massive repatriation operations in West Africa, South Sudan and Afghanistan, the number of refugees is rising as many conflicts deteriorate.
But the number of people fleeing violence could soon be dwarfed by those displaced because of global warming and environmental changes.
Rising sea levels, deforestation and desertification are just some of the reasons that will force people to move.
A predicted rise in natural disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides is also likely to increase displacement.
Mass migration will raise the chances of conflict over shrinking land and resources like fresh water.
British relief and development organisation Christian Aid forecasts there will be 250 million people permanently displaced by climate change by 2050.
Picture: (Tamil refugees search for their belongings after fire broke out in a Tamil refugee camp in Vavuniya, northeast Sri Lanka, February 28, 2009. The fire broke out in one of the camps).