Millions of refugees are hidden victims of the West's war on terror, warns UN

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The Independent Online

Refugees fleeing persecution or civil war are becoming the hidden victims of the West's obsession with combating terrorism, the United Nations will warn in a report published today.

Only a fraction of the world's 9.2 million refugees have the means to reach the industrialised world to seek asylum. Those who do are increasingly likely to be treated like criminals as rich countries put up the barriers to keep out terrorists and economic migrants.

"More and more, asylum-seekers are portrayed not as refugees fleeing persecution and entitled to sanctuary, but rather as illegal migrants, potential terrorists and criminals - or at a minimum, as 'bogus'," the report by the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), warns.

The UNHCR singles out a Europe-wide initiative launched by Tony Blair in 2003 as an example of how the industrialised north is trying to make the developing world cope with more than its share of refugees. "Are affluent states about to outsource refugee protection to low-cost, no-frills countries? Some observers would affirm that this is already happening, with the deflection policies of the north leaving the south with a disproportionate share of the protection burden," the report says.

As an example, it cites an attempt by Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands to introduce a new policy under which some classes of asylum-seekers would be removed to centres outside Europe while their cases are processed. The move, backed by Tony Blair, was defeated by Germany, France and Sweden.

Antonio Guterres, the High Commissioner, is to launch the report,The State of the World's Refugees, with Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary. It is the first major survey of its kind since 2000.

The good news is that the total number of refugees in the world is at its lowest level for 25 years. The number of asylum-seekers is also at its lowest for many years - in Britain, it has fallen to a 13-year low. The total number of migrants of all kinds around the world is about 175 million, barely one in 20 of whom is a refugee.

Millions of refugees have been repatriated or resettled over the past five years, including more than four million who have gone home to Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands who have returned to Angola, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Liberia. But the total figure for refugees may mask the increasing difficulty the displaced are having finding any form of sanctuary, even in neighbouring countries. This is the "biggest failure" of world humanitarian efforts, Mr Guterres says. "People who would otherwise seek safety in neighbouring states are more frequently compelled to remain within the borders of their own country, most often in similar conditions as refugees," the report says. As of 2004, there were up to 25 million internally displaced people around the world, a big increase since era of the Cold War.

Another source of concern is the plight of refugees in protracted exile - 5.7 million people. But as the effects of globalisation have brought a surge in the number of people leaving their home countries for economic reasons, there are fears that the rights of genuine asylum-seekers and refugees may be undermined. The report says: "In the past few years, asylum issues and refugee protection have become inextricably linked with the question of international migration, particularly irregular migration."

The refugee should "not pay the price", Mr Guterres said yesterday.

Asked about the debate in Britain on the extent to which extremist parties such as the BNP could benefit in next month's local elections by a blurring of race and immigration issues, he replied: "There is a populist approach to politics, sometimes also in the media - not only in Britain. They try to mix everything - migration, asylum, refugees and security concerns with terrorism. It is absolutely essential that things are clarified. Refugees are not terrorists, they are the first victims of terror." He added: "Let's be frank, the majority of refugees are not in the developed world, they are in the developing world. And that large majority does not want to migrate to the developed world, they want to go home."

Escaping the world's conflicts


At least two million have left - more than one-fifth of the world's total refugees. Almost all went to Iran or Pakistan

Sudan and Congo

Conflicts have uprooted 7.5 million people. Some fled to neighbouring nations but six million are still in their home countries and are not classed as refugees


The "dirty war" involving left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, the armed forces and drugs cartels may have forced out two million people- the world's second largest displaced population


Simmering tensions mean there are more than 300,000 have fled Somalia


At least 320,000 fled Liberia's civil wars