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WASHINGTON LETTER Jan-7-2005 (960 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxn

Even before tsunamis, Asia was home to millions of displaced people

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Before the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunamis, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India already had several million people living as refugees.

With the world's attention now focused on aiding survivors of one of the most widespread natural disasters in recent history, refugee assistance organizations are concerned about protecting vulnerable populations of people, including millions who had been displaced from their homes since long before December, and groups such as orphaned children.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which serves as a sort of global clearinghouse for the protection and resettlement of refugees, has taken the unprecedented step of jumping into disaster relief after the tsunamis.

The organization's mandate is to aid refugees, defined as people who have fled their home countries due to war or persecution. The UNHCR has never before handled a major relief operation in response to a natural disaster.

"The enormity of this crisis requires all of us to contribute our expertise and resources," said a statement from Janet Lim, director of the agency's Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. "UNHCR has long experience in Somalia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, so it is logical for us to use our knowledge, means and expertise to help."

But while the U.N. agency said it would not divert resources from its primary refugee activities, Anastasia Brown, director of refugee programs for Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said "the main concern of everybody on the ground there is disaster relief. Our main concern is to maintain protection for people who were not in the disaster."

"We're thrilled there's been such a terrific response to the tsunami," said Brown. But she noted that the countries hardest hit by the tsunamis were providing refuge already to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

According to the most recent report of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, many people living in "temporary" refugee or displacement camps had been there for more than five years. The organization is sponsoring a major campaign to find permanent homes for the estimated 7.5 million refugees worldwide who have been living in camps for 10 years or more.

As of the end of 2003, the most recent year for which figures were available, Thailand was hosting more than 400,000 refugees, most from neighboring Laos and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. India had more than 300,000 refugees from Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar, Afghanistan and other countries.

Within Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Myanmar, another 2 million to 4 million people were considered "internally displaced" -- still living in their own countries but forced by violence or persecution to live away from their homes, often in tent camps.

The Committee for Refugees and Immigrants said the tsunamis once again displaced some of those refugees, including a group of 1,000 Sri Lankans living in a Christian missionary hostel in India's Tamil Nadu state who were safely evacuated.

Besides causing the deaths of at least 150,000 people in 11 countries, the earthquake and tsunamis obliterated the homes of hundreds of thousands more, and destroyed the sources of employment for many.

Estimates of the number of people displaced by the disaster ran into the millions.

The International Catholic Migration Commission, which represents 172 church-run organizations in 65 countries, is focusing its post-tsunami efforts on what it calls "extremely vulnerable individuals," including those with physical or mental illnesses, unaccompanied elderly people or minors and extremely poor elderly and children.

In early January, amid reports of a surge in trafficking in children for slavery, governments in the tsunami-affected countries said they were taking steps to prevent the kidnapping of children who were orphaned or separated from their families.

Brown said the Catholic Migration Commission staff in Indonesia was focusing on how to protect children who are vulnerable to traffickers.

Meanwhile, as news coverage stirred people around the world to offer to adopt orphans, several countries in the disaster zone emphasized that they have strict laws against foreign adoptions and that they were hoping to place orphans with relatives in their home countries.

The number of new orphans after the tsunamis "pales in comparison" to the number of children with no known relatives who are living in the world's refugee camps, said Mark Franken, director of MRS for the U.S. bishops. He told of visiting refugee camps in Thailand last year that house 6,000 children from Myanmar who are classified as "unaccompanied minors."

"These kids are becoming adults, they've been there so long," Franken said. Prior to the tsunamis, MRS had already begun working with the U.S. government in a major effort to provide permanent solutions for unaccompanied minors, he said.

The distance between the United States and the tsunami-affected areas makes it unlikely that survivors of the disaster will either attempt or be able to seek permanent refuge in the United States any time soon, migration experts said.

The Department of Homeland Security could choose to offer what is known as temporary protected status to people from the affected region and allow them to remain in the United States because of hardships in their home countries, explained Brown. For example, temporary protected status recently was extended through September 2006 for Salvadorans in light of devastating earthquakes there in 2001.

Franken thinks a much more immediate way of helping would be for the United States to do whatever it can to help get some of those long-term refugees -- especially in the most vulnerable groups -- out of tsunami-stricken countries and resettled in this country.

Without even making any new provisions, he said, Catholic agencies affiliated with MRS are equipped to accept up to 500 unaccompanied minor refugees. In all of 2004, they only received about 20.


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