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Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Internally Displaced Persons

The Global Picture

The anti-refugee policies and xenophobic attitudes of industrialized states had significant global export value. Traditionally generous hosting countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East referred to the example set in the West when defending their own increasingly restrictive policies and practices. Nevertheless, the world's poorer nations continued to host the vast majority of the world's refugees and in times of crisis endeavored to keep their doors open to those fleeing civil conflict and gross human rights abuse.


Traditionally one of the most generous refugee hosting regions in the world, recent years saw a significant shift in African refugee policies. The plethora of violent internal and regional conflicts that plagued so many African countries over the past decade meant that at the turn of the century few countries were immune from refugee crises. Yet the presence of militia groups within refugee settlements and the fear that mass refugee movements would result in instability and conflicts spilling over national borders made host countries increasingly wary and contributed to more restrictive refugee policies and, in some cases, lack of safe asylum. The Great Lakes refugee crisis--sparked by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and subsequent and continuing mass movements of refugees across as many as nine countries, and the conspicuous and destabilizing presence of military and political elements in refugee camps--heralded the end of the legacy of generous asylum and open-door policies for refugees in Central and East Africa.

West Africa

By mid-2000, a similar scenario was unfolding in West Africa, where a deteriorating security situation threatened the safety of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Host to the second largest refugee population in Africa, Guinea earned a reputation as a generous country of refuge. By September 2000, there were nearly half a million refugees--330,00 Sierra Leoneans and 126,000 Liberians--inside Guinea.

This pattern of generous hospitality was seriously threatened by the deteriorating security situation in the region in 2000. A rapid influx of refugees into Guinea from Sierra Leone from May onwards and fears of infiltration by Sierra Leonean rebels, prompted the Guinean government to close its borders with Sierra Leone in early August, although "vulnerable" groups were subsequently allowed entry following interventions by UNHCR. Tensions rose between Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia from late July onwards, as each country accused the other of supporting rebel activity. A series of cross-border attacks from both Liberia and Sierra Leone between August and October claimed the lives of hundreds of Guinean civilians and injured many others. Most of these attacks occurred close to the Sierra Leonean and Liberian borders in exactly the same areas where the refugee camps were located.

The attacks resulted in serious reprisals against Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Guinea, both in the border camps and in the cities. On September 9, Guinean President Lansana Conte made an inflammatory broadcast in which he blamed refugees for harboring rebels and urged the Guinean population to round-up all foreigners. For several days, armed groups of civilian militias, police, and soldiers broke into the homes of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Conakry, beat, raped, and arrested them, and looted their belongings. Over five thousand people were detained and hundreds more sought refuge in the Sierra Leonean and Liberian embassies. Hundreds of refugees fled Guinea, many of them by boat back to Sierra Leone. Despite pleas for calm and assurances by government officials that Guinea would remain a safe country of asylum for refugees, President Conte made further anti-refugee statements in a speech marking the anniversary of Guinea's independence on October 2.

The situation for refugees in camps along the Liberian and Sierra Leonean borders was also critical. Several camps in the Forecariah region on the border with Sierra Leone were attacked by Sierra Leonean rebels and by Guinean civilians, forcing thousands of refugees to flee back into rebel-controlled areas of Sierra Leone. At the same time, Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia remained closed to refugees fleeing conflict and human rights violations, and refugees in Guinea were faced with the unenviable choice of remaining unprotected in Guinea, or returning to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Guinea in Perspective

Security versus Asylum: The Case of Thailand

The situation in Guinea exemplified two worrying trends. The first was governments' readiness to indiscriminately blame and take actions against foreigners and refugees when faced with national security threats. In Thailand, for example, the government reacted harshly when Burmese gunmen seized the Burmese embassy in Bangkok in October 1999 and took five hundred people hostage in the Ratchaburi provincial hospital in January 2000. Following these events, the authorities announced that all refugees should move to camps along the border and Maneeloy Student Center, a camp for dissident Burmese refugees, would be closed. Thai authorities deported five Burmese, four of whom had applied for refugee status with UNHCR, to the border town of Myawaddy where they were arrested by the Burmese authorities. Provincial admission boards were set up to determine asylum claims, and refugee protection was restricted only to those fleeing fighting in Burma. All other Burmese were declared to be illegal immigrants and risked forcible repatriation to Burma. In June, the Thai authorities expelled 116 refugees from Don Yang refugee camp in Kanchanaburi Province, and in August, Thai officials returned around one hundred ethnic minority Karen from Nu Pho Camp in Rak province.

Disparity in International Response: The Kosovo Factor

The second trend highlighted by the Guinea crisis was the gross disparity in the international response to refugee crises. Despite the similarities with the situation in Macedonia during the Kosovo emergency in 1999, the difference in the international response to the two situations was striking. Unlike Macedonia, where the international community poured in resources and reacted quickly to evacuate refugees and thus relieve the pressure on Macedonia and help to keep the borders open, the international response to the crisis in Guinea was negligible. The crisis hardly touched the world media headlines, international funding was seriously lacking, and there was certainly no airlifting of refugees to safety in Western countries.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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