With the approach of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, millions of people throughout the world are making plans to go home for the holidays. But for millions of others, there is no home to return to.
Driven from their native lands by war, famine and human rights abuses, an estimated 14 million people worldwide will spend their holidays as refugees. An additional 30 million "internally displaced persons" - international legal jargon for people who have suffered similar crises as refugees but who have not crossed an international border to escape - will be homeless as well.
It's been half a century since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was charged with the job of caring for victims of political turmoil and natural disaster. But as the UNHCR prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, governments around the world are backpedaling on their commitments to the millions who have suffered the trauma of displacement.
Most refugees flee to some of the poorest countries in the world, which, under international law, are bound to keep their borders open.
But the post-Cold War era has meant a staggering rise in ethnic conflict and civil strife, and wealthier countries aren't doing enough to help. In addition to shirking their moral obligation to provide financial support to countries on the front line, the world's richest nations are adding to the problem by blocking the door to the relatively small number of asylum-seekers turning to them for help.
That tendency, especially in Western Europe, threatens to do real damage to the carefully constructed but fragile system of refugee protection that has been built up over the past five decades.
Refugees are treated dramatically differently, depending on where they end up. If you are an Afghan fleeing the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Kabul, you may hit the jackpot: Because you're fleeing religious persecution, which the U.S. government cares a lot about, you might become eligible for a resettlement program in the United States.
If you were one of the refugees from Kosovo last year, you were also relatively lucky. Thanks to the engagement of the powerful governments of NATO,
Kosovo refugees faced the shortest crisis and fastest return in history - about three months, from displacement to homecoming.
But if you are a refugee in Guinea, where the roads are impassable during the rainy season, you may not even receive the modest rations of bulgar wheat and vegetable oil the World Food Program, another U.N. agency, is supposed to provide to every inhabitant of those camps.
If you are a refugee in Tanzania who fled the civil war in Burundi, you are in danger of being raped when you leave the confines of the camp to forage for firewood (at increasingly long distances from the camp, as the surrounding area is progressively deforested).
And if you are an internally displaced person in Ingushetia, fleeing the Russian offensive in Chechnya, you are really out of luck. The United Nations' distinction between refugees and internally displaced people has led to enormous and bizarre distortions in how these people are treated, leaving millions to struggle for survival without the international assistance, however meager, that refugees receive from UNHCR.
The Russian government considers its Ingushetia problem an "internal matter, " and won't give humanitarian agencies full access to the people who have fled Chechnya for neighboring territories in the northern Caucasus. As a result, displaced families there live in camps of unheated train cars, in abandoned farm buildings, in mosques and warehouses, and with already over-stretched host families. They have limited access to food and health care, and there are few educational opportunities for the children.
But no matter what your circumstances, nothing feels the same when you're a refugee. Certainly not the holidays: Research shows that refugees rarely celebrate anything in their first year of displacement. They keep thinking that they'll get to go home soon, and they don't want to carry on traditions that feel alien in a foreign place. But as time wears on, they give in, and begin to decorate their homes and cook their special meals to mark the holiday -whether it's spring festival in Asia, the end of Ramadan in the Middle East, or the Easter holiday in Christian Africa.
Some end up marking those holidays for years, even decades, in forced exile.
Many refugees lose hope of ever returning. They have been away so long that a generation of children has grown up without ever seeing their homeland. The largest and oldest refugee population in the world, some 6.4 million Palestinians, have been exiled from their homes in what is now Israel for more than 50 years. In South Asia, more than 100,000 refugees from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan have spent the last decade in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 1 million people displaced by warfare in the 1990s are still unable to go home.
Throughout history, people have been forced from their homes by war, famine and human rights abuses. The UNHCR is the only global agency with the mandate to help - the first and last place that refugees turn to.
Before UNHCR can get to work, it must be invited in by the country hosting the refugees. Most nations are eager to apply for the international assistance that UNHCR will bring them, although a few, such as India, guard their sovereignty so jealously they won't ask for help.
The abiding tenet of international refugee law is that a refugee can't be sent home if it's not safe for him or her to go back. This tenet is frequently violated, however. In Thailand, for example, the government regularly deports refugees back to Burma, which is ruled by a highly repressive military government that provides no guarantees that refugees' lives or freedom will be protected. And in Pakistan, the government recently closed its borders to refugees from Afghanistan, forcing them to return to conditions of certain danger and insecurity.
Once refugees have asylum in another country, they are entitled to various social, economic and legal rights under international refugee law. These include the right to family unity - to bring family members to live with them; the right to freedom of movement; the right to assistance and to work; and most important, the right to nondiscrimination in their new home.
Finally, governments have a responsibility to work with UNHCR to find a solution to the plight of refugees. This usually means returning them to their country of origin once it is safe to go back. It can also mean permanent integration into the country of asylum, or resettlement to a third country, such as the United States.
But although refugees are entitled to receive sanctuary and assistance from governments and the United Nations, the world has become a less hospitable place for them.
Both the scope of the job and the way the UNHCR performs it have changed dramatically in the past five decades. Financial, logistic and security constraints limit its effectiveness, and growing resistance by governments, especially the European governments, serves as a roadblock to refugees.
The United States accepted about 638,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in 1999. The problem is in the way that asylum-seekers are detained - they often wait for months or even years for a hearing. The Immigration and Naturalization Service sometimes mixes asylum-seekers, who may be fleeing grievous persecution, with people in lockups.
Human Rights Watch has reported on teenagers from China and many countries in Latin America who are being held in juvenile facilities, even though they are not suspected of committing any crime. Some of these teens do not speak English and are thoroughly traumatized by their experience in detention. Human Rights Watch interviewed one child in a Pennsylvania facility who had been detained for five months without being able to speak to a single person in his own language.
But the problems in the United States don't begin to compare to those caused by the massive, and sometimes very sudden, flows of people over borders when warfare breaks out. In these circumstances, the host government is often tempted to shirk its responsibilities under international law. And international donors - including the United States - are tempted to turn a blind eye.
Even countries with a long and generous history of hosting refugees for decades are slowly hardening. A couple of years ago, the government of Tanzania rounded up tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring Burundi and dumped them in refugee camps in the western part of the country. Many of the refugees had been in the country since the early 1970s. "My seven children were all born in Tanzania," one woman told Human Rights Watch researchers. "We get along with our neighbors. We contribute to the community. We helped to build the schools."
But when fighters from the civil war in Burundi spilled over the border, the Tanzanian government sent military vehicles to her neighborhood, rounding up all foreigners and stripping them of their belongings. Her children were at school when she was taken away. When Human Rights Watch interviewed her more than six months later, she was living in a refugee camp in another part of the country and had not seen her children.
As refugee crises proliferate in poor African countries, governments are beginning to explicitly target refugees as scapegoats and encourage local vigilantes to attack them. Unleashing these kinds of hatreds can be a convenient way for politicians to distract their own populations from a sluggish economy or a society rife with corruption.
In September, the president of Guinea, Lansana Conte, closed the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia because rebels from those countries had conducted incursions onto Guinean territory. Conte also made two highly inflammatory speeches blaming refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia for the insecurity and general ills of his country. He called on the Guinean population to round up the foreigners - and they did, beating many people, raping women and sending terror through an already traumatized population.
The people in charge of protecting those refugees have an increasingly dangerous job. On Sept. 6, three UNHCR staffers were murdered in Atambua, in West Timor. Less than two weeks later, Liberian rebels killed the head of the UNHCR office in the border town of Macenta, in Guinea. This incident caused the full withdrawal of humanitarian staff from the camps in West Timor, which still house about 125,000 refugees, and from the Guinean borders, where most of the half million refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia had taken shelter. These refugees are now largely unprotected and unassisted.
But nowhere have the international standards for refugee protection been under greater attack than in Western Europe, North America and Australia - the very countries responsible for formulating the international law on this issue to begin with.
The countries of the European Union have banded together to undertake "fire- brigade policing" to try and keep asylum-seekers out. Most countries now require refugees to arrive at the airport with a visa - something virtually no refugee can get, for obvious reasons. If they don't have one, or if they try to forge documents to get into the country, they're not likely to get asylum.
These nations' approach to refugees is not only mean-spirited - it sends a message to other countries that face much greater waves of displaced people and can much less afford to take care of them.
If we ask that less-developed countries do so much when they have so little, can't we ask the same of ourselves?
Something to think about over the holiday season.