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United Nations Global Issues


Faces behind the figures


Somalia and Afghanistan are two prime examples of how seemingly endless conflicts are creating huge, quasi-permanent refugee populations that are now scattered across much of the globe. Afghan refugees today can be found in 71 nations. In 2009, Somalis applied for asylum in at least 34 countries. Extending across multiple borders, this 21st Century refugee phenomenon requires new, global solutions. Until those solutions are found, refugees who see no future at home will continue to wander an often unwelcoming world in search of safety and a better life for their families. Here are two stories illustrating the difficulties and the desperation faced by refugees.

Escape from Mogadishu

“I do not believe there is any group of refugees who are as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against as Somalis.” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres

GALKAYO, Somalia – Aisho Warsame is one of 1.4 million internally displaced people living in appalling conditions in Somalia, scene of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Another 700,000 Somali refugees are scattered across numerous other nations, mostly in Africa and the Middle East.

Aisho recently told how she woke up one morning in 2010 and realized she couldn't take the noise of the shelling and bombing any more. She had to leave Mogadishu or she would go crazy or, most probably, end up dead.

"The streets of Mogadishu are completely deserted, the few people who are left there are too scared to leave their houses," the 62-year-old grandmother said in the safety of Galkayo, a town 700 kms north of the Somali capital. "All you see in the streets are the bodies of people killed by bullets or mortars."

Aisho fled the city with her four children and six grandchildren after the death of her husband and the destruction of her home by mortar fire. The family made their way on foot and by bus to Galkayo, where Aisho found shelter in a camp hosting thousands of desperate people displaced by the seemingly endless fighting.

But although she has almost nothing in Galkayo, Aisho has no regrets about leaving Mogadishu. "Living without the fear of being killed is a luxury," she stressed. There are certainly no other luxuries for her here: she lives in a small makeshift shelter that offers almost no protection from the elements.

A view of Dakhla Refugee Camp.

A view of Dakhla Refugee Camp.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Despite the daily hardship of her life, Aisho clings to the hope that things will get better.

Many Somalis, however, have lost all hope for their homeland and have set out in a desperate search to find new lives elsewhere. Among them are some 170,000 Somali refugees in Yemen, many of whom made a perilous voyage across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden in flimsy boats operated by ruthless smugglers. Thousands have perished attempting the dangerous journey. From January to October 2010, some 43,000 people -- mainly Somalis and Ethiopians – made the trip.

In a recent visit to the Kharaz refugee camp in Yemen, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres met traumatized Somali refugees who had survived the sea crossing. Only days earlier, a rickety smugglers boat had capsized and 40 migrants and refugees drowned. "They suffer inside Somalia, during their escape, and then here," Guterres said at the bleak refugee camp. "I would not like to live here for so many years."

Unable to return to their war-torn country, refugees in Kharaz have little option other than to live in limbo -- at least for the time being. Many are looking beyond Yemen, including 24-year-old Ibrihim Mohamed Qalinle. "Our dream is to get somewhere better than here," he said.

Read more about Aisho
Learn more about refugees in Yemen
Video -- ‘Kenya: Deck’s Dream’ 
Photos -- ‘Running out of space’


Out in the cold

CALAIS, France – Sabir woke up soaked and chilled to the bone. His only protection against the freezing rain and cutting wind blowing off the English Channel had been a blanket donated by a French charity, but the rain poured all night and the blanket soon turned into a wet, spongy mass.

The 22-year-old from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and his friends had spent most of the night wandering through the deserted streets of this port city in northern France, carrying their meagre belongings and being chased by the police, who gave them the choice of either leaving Calais or being arrested.

Sabir had documents showing that he was awaiting a final decision on his asylum claim, so the police let him go. But some of his friends were taken away to a detention centre.

The local authorities allow migrants and asylum-seekers – from places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq and Sudan – to sleep in a local community hall with a cardboard box as bedding. But the facility is only opened up to them when the temperature falls below freezing point.

"I left my country almost a year ago because of serious problems," Sabir said through an interpreter. "I've spent seven months in France asking for protection. France hasn't given me any papers. They have given me no shelter and no money."

The young man said he had been forced to sleep under bridges and in the mud. "Not even dogs, or any other animals, would be able to live in these conditions. Every day, I'm trying to get papers and every night they [the police] don't let me sleep," he claimed. "I am sick and going out of my mind. I am exhausted."

Sabir said he left Afghanistan after his father and two older brothers were killed. His mother still lives in Afghanistan with his younger brother and sister. Another sister is in Pakistan. He has not heard from any of them.

Sudanese refugees in Iridimi Camp in Chad.

Sudanese refugees in
Iridimi Camp in Chad.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

People fleeing their countries because of a well-founded fear of political, religious or ethnic persecution are entitled to refugee status. According to the European Union's (EU) Dublin II regulation, however, asylum claims are normally handled by the country where the applicant first entered the EU. Sabir, like many of the other young men living rough in Calais, entered Europe through Greece, a country where asylum-seekers face serious difficulties in accessing an effective asylum procedure.

According to French law, asylum-seekers who are admitted into the normal asylum procedure are entitled to accommodation, but the authorities claim there are not enough places and priority should be given to families with small children. They also claim that some of the asylum-seekers in Calais refuse to be accommodated in other parts of France because their real intention is to cross the English Channel and work in the United Kingdom.

While the authorities' goal is to prevent illegal crossings, the lack of accommodation and the constant round-ups and police checks make life very hard for asylum-seekers like Sabir. In 2009, around 20 per cent of asylum-seekers in Europe came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

An estimated one-quarter of all undocumented migrants in Calais are aged under 18. UNHCR staff have come across children as young as nine, usually travelling with an older sibling or relative. These young Afghans are trying to reach Europe for a variety of reasons, including the ongoing conflict in their home country and the eroding welcome in neighbouring states. Individual experiences of war and human rights violations, including forced labour and kidnapping, combined with insecurity, widespread poverty, political instability, poor educational prospects and dwindling hopes for a brighter future are all fuelling the flows, as are expanding smuggling networks.

Read more about Afghanistan
Video -- ‘Author Khaled Hosseini returns to Afghanistan’ 
Photos -- ‘Afghanistan: An Uncertain Future’