Finding a Place to Call Their Own

“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”—John Howard Payne.

FIRST came the war, a war that never ended. Then came the drought, a drought that never relented. On the heels of the drought came the famine. And people did the only thing they could do—they abandoned their homes in search of water, food, and work.

They arrived by the thousands at the border post. But in recent years a million refugees had already been admitted, and the neighboring country would accept no more. Border police with truncheons made sure that nobody slipped through.

A local immigration official bluntly described the reasons for halting the surging tide of refugees. “They don’t pay taxes. They wreck the roads. They cut down the trees. They use up the water. No, we don’t want any more.” *

Such tragic scenes are becoming all too common. Uprooted people discover that it is more and more difficult to find a place they can call their own. “As the number of people seeking protection has increased, so too has the reluctance of states to provide that protection,” explained a recent Amnesty International report.

The fortunate ones who do make it to a refugee camp may find safety of sorts, but it rarely seems like home. And the conditions in the camp may be far from ideal.

Life in Refugee Camps

“You might die [at home] of a bullet, but here [in the refugee camp] your children will die of hunger,” complained one African refugee. As this desperate father discovered, many camps suffer persistent shortages of food and water as well as a dearth of hygiene and adequate shelter. The reasons are simple. Developing countries that suddenly find themselves inundated with many thousands of refugees may already be struggling just to feed their own citizens. They cannot provide much help to the multitudes who suddenly appear on their doorstep. And the wealthier nations, faced with their own problems, may be reluctant to help support the many refugees in other countries.

When over two million people fled one African country in 1994, the hastily built refugee camps inevitably lacked water and proper sanitation. As a result, an outbreak of cholera killed thousands before it was finally brought under control. To make matters worse, armed combatants mixed in with the civilian refugees and quickly took over the distribution of relief items. This problem was not unique. “The presence of armed elements amongst refugee populations has exposed civilians to increased risks. It has made them vulnerable to intimidation, harassment and forced recruitment,” states a United Nations report.

Local people may also suffer from the huge influx of hungry refugees. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, some officials complained: “[The refugees] have destroyed our food reserves,  destroyed our fields, our cattle, our natural parks, caused famine and spread epidemics . . . [They] benefit from food aid while we get nothing.”

Nevertheless, the thorniest problem may be the fact that many provisional refugee camps end up as permanent settlements. For example, in one country in the Middle East, some 200,000 refugees are squeezed into a camp originally built for a quarter of that number. “We have nowhere to go,” one of them bitterly explained. These long-suffering refugees face severe employment restrictions in their host country, and as many as 95 percent are reckoned to be unemployed or underemployed. “I honestly don’t know how [they] make ends meet,” a refugee official admitted.

But if conditions sound bad in the refugee camps, they may be even worse for those displaced persons who cannot leave their own country.

The Misery of Displacement

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “the scale and scope of this problem, the human suffering which underlies it, as well as its impact on international peace and security, have rightly made internal displacement an issue of great international concern.” For several reasons, these homeless people are usually more vulnerable than refugees.

No international organization cares for the welfare of displaced persons, and their desperate plight often draws scant attention from the media. Their own governments, bogged down in a military conflict of one sort or another, may be unwilling or unable to protect them. Families are frequently broken up during their flight from danger zones. Often forced to travel on foot, some displaced persons do not even survive the march to a place of greater security.

Many of these uprooted people seek refuge in cities, where they are limited to a meager existence in shantytowns or abandoned buildings. Others congregate in makeshift camps, which sometimes suffer armed attacks. Usually, their mortality rate is higher than that of any other group in the country.

Even well-meaning relief efforts organized to alleviate the suffering of these displaced persons can boomerang. The State of the World’s Refugees 2000 explains: “During the last decade of the 20th century, humanitarian organizations operating in war-torn countries saved thousands of lives and did much to mitigate human suffering. One of the central lessons of the decade, however, was that in conflict situations humanitarian action can easily be manipulated  by warring parties, and it can have the unintended consequence of strengthening the positions of authorities responsible for human rights violations. Also, relief supplies provided by humanitarian organizations can feed into war economies, helping to sustain and prolong war.”

The Search for a Better Life-Style

Besides refugees and internally displaced persons, there is a growing tide of economic refugees. There are several reasons for this. The gap between the rich countries of the world and the poor ones keeps growing, and television programs daily flaunt the affluent life-styles of certain countries in front of some of the poorest citizens of the globe. Worldwide travel has become easier, and borders are getting more porous. Civil wars as well as ethnic and religious discrimination also provide strong motivation for people to move to more prosperous lands.

But while some migrants—especially those who already have relatives in industrialized countries—make the move successfully, others end up ruining their lives. Those who fall into the hands of criminal traffickers face particular danger. (See the accompanying boxes.) A family would do well to consider carefully these dangers before migrating for economic reasons.

In 1996 an old boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, and 280 people drowned. The victims were emigrants from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who had paid between $6,000 and $8,000 for their passage to Europe. Before the shipwreck, they had already endured weeks of hunger, thirst, and physical abuse. Their “journey to prosperity” turned into a nightmare that ended in tragedy.

Practically every refugee, displaced person, or irregular migrant has his own nightmare to relate. Whatever the reason for which these people have been uprooted from their homes—be it war, persecution, or poverty—their suffering provokes the questions: Will this problem ever be solved? Or will the flood of refugees just keep on growing?


^ par. 5 The situation described above occurred in March 2001 in an Asian country. But similar problems have also arisen in some African countries.

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The Plight of Irregular Migrants

Apart from refugees and displaced persons, there are somewhere between 15 million and 30 million “irregular migrants” throughout the world. Most of these are people who hope to escape poverty—and maybe prejudice and persecution as well—in richer countries.

Since the possibilities for legal migration have diminished in recent years, a new illegal trade in migrants has sprung up. In fact, the trafficking of migrants has now become a lucrative business for international crime syndicates. Some investigators calculate that it generates profits of $12 billion a year, with very little risk to the traffickers. Pino Arlacchi, a United Nations under-secretary-general, called this “the fastest-growing criminal market in the world.”

Irregular migrants have practically no legal protection, and their passports are invariably confiscated by the traffickers. Such migrants may be found in sweatshops, in domestic employment, in the fishing industry, or in agricultural work. Some end up as prostitutes. If they are caught by the authorities, they will likely be repatriated, penniless. If they object to their harsh working conditions, they may be beaten or sexually abused or even have their families back home threatened with violence.

Often criminal gangs lure potential migrants with promises of high-paying jobs. As a result, an impoverished family may mortgage all their possessions just to send one member to Europe or the United States. If the migrant cannot pay his expenses, he will be expected to work off the debt, which may be as high as $40,000. The ‘new life’ he was promised turns out to be more like slave labor.


Illegal refugees in Spain

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Innocence Destroyed

Siri’s family lived in the hills of Southeast Asia, where her parents tended their rice fields. One day a woman told her parents that she could get Siri a well-paying job in the city. Her offer of $2,000—a small fortune for the hill farmers—was hard to refuse. Soon, however, Siri found herself in bondage to a brothel. The owners told her that to earn her freedom, she would have to repay them $8,000. Siri was 15 years old at the time.

It was impossible for Siri to pay off this debt. Beatings and sexual abuse coerced her into cooperating. As long as she was useful, she would never be set free. The harsh reality is that many such prostitutes are eventually freed—but only to return to their villages to die of AIDS.

A similar trade is thriving in other parts of the world. A 1999 report entitled International Trafficking in Women to the United States estimated that between 700,000 and 2,000,000 women and children are trafficked each year, many of them for prostitution. Some may be deceived, others are just kidnapped; but practically all of them are forced to work against their will. A teenager from Eastern Europe who was rescued from a prostitution gang said regarding her captors: “I never thought this was possible. These people are animals.”

Some unfortunate victims have even been picked up in refugee camps, where promises of jobs and good money in Europe or the United States can be irresistible. For countless women, the search for a better life has led them into sexual slavery.

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Count the Cost Before Migrating for Economic Reasons

In view of the many criminal gangs involved in trafficking migrants and the difficulty of immigrating legally to countries of the developed world, husbands and fathers should carefully consider the following questions before making a decision.

1. Is our economic situation really so desperate that one or all of the family must move to a country where wages are higher?

2. How much debt would we incur to finance the trip, and how will the debt be repaid?

3. Is it worth breaking up the family for economic advantages that may prove unrealistic? Many illegal migrants find it practically impossible to obtain regular employment in developed countries.

4. Should I believe the stories about high wages and social benefits? The Bible says that “anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word, but the shrewd one considers his steps.”—Proverbs 14:15.

5. What guarantee do I have that we would not be putting ourselves in the hands of a criminal organization?

6. If such a criminal group did organize the journey, do I understand that my wife—or my daughter—might well find herself forced to work as a prostitute?

7. Do I realize that if I enter a country as an illegal immigrant, I may be unable to obtain fixed employment and could be repatriated, losing all the money I have invested in the journey?

8. Do I want to consider becoming an illegal immigrant or resorting to dishonest measures in order to gain admittance to a wealthier country?—Matthew 22:21; Hebrews 13:18.

[Diagram/Map on page 8, 9]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Movement of Refugees and Migrant Workers

Areas with major populations of refugees and displaced persons

→ Principal movements of migrant workers

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Sources: The State of the World’s Refugees; The Global Migration Crisis; and World Refugee Survey 1999.

Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

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A refugee awaits resettlement

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UN PHOTO 186226/M. Grafman