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A changing world

Pam O'Toole has travelled to seven countries to make a special radio series for the BBC World Service on refugees. Here she writes about how the refugee debate has changed since the end of the Cold War.

When the Geneva Convention was first drafted, the world was a different place. Western Europe was still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the Second World War and the many millions it had uprooted.

The Western powers quickly adapted the Convention's definition of a refugee- a person fleeing persecution- to people escaping the Communist bloc. These people were welcomed with open arms.

Quang Luu was just such a refugee- a man who was welcomed in the West because he was regarded as voting with his feet against Communism.

Quang Luu was a Cold War refugee
Perhaps the highest ranking career diplomat in South Vietnam when Saigon fell to Communist forces on 30th April 1975, he decided to flee after the country's new Communist rulers ordered civil servants and career diplomats to report to them.

"I knew I couldn't have survived had I done it, so I decided to escape."

He fled across the Gulf of Siam in a round bamboo fishing basket only 1.5 metres wide, which he shared with two other men.

Eventually Mr Luu made his way to Australia, where he went on to become head of SBS- Australia's multi-cultural, multi-ethnic broadcasting station.

During the 80s people like Quang Luu continued to be regarded as propaganda tools in various proxy Cold Wars that raged around the globe. But by the beginning of the 1990s, things were changing. Communism had all but collapsed.

New types of internal conflicts erupted. Millions of people were displaced within their own countries. Millions more fled abroad.

And nowadays, some politicians argue, the 1951 Convention badly needs updating.

Geneva Convention - Definition of refugee
"Any person who ... owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..."
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In search of a better life

Its drafters,they say, could not have foreseen the rapid development of mass transportation systems, encouraging the rise of economic migration, or the freedom of movement made possible by the collapse of the Communist bloc.

But perhaps the biggest confusing factor is the increasing difficulty involved in differentiating between genuine refugees fleeing persecution and those seeking a better life abroad.

Source: UNHCR Estimates 2001
During the 1990s, new types of internal conflicts erupted. Millions of people were displaced within their own countries. Millions more fled abroad.

But perhaps the biggest confusing factor is the rise of the economic migrant and the increasing difficulty in differentiating between genuine refugees fleeing persecution and those seeking a better life abroad.

With legal immigration routes into many Western countries now extremely limited, many would-be migrants see the asylum route as the only option. And given the increasing barriers being erected by Western countries, more and more are turning to people smugglers.

Some of the asylum-seekers I met travelled on from their countries of first asylum, either because they had been made to feel unwelcome or simply in search of better opportunities.

Mohamed Abdille: Imprisoned for almost two years
Almost all have been smuggled. There was Mohamed Abdille, a Somali detained for almost two years in US jails and detention centres because he had first claimed asylum in South Africa. The fact that he had been beaten senseless by local people there- and that South Africa refused to have him back - did not seem to sway the courts.

And then there was "Sadat", an arrogant young Afghan who had previously claimed asylum in Iran, but had moved on to Britain because he wanted to improve his "educate".

There was the young Sri Lankan Tamil who had spent five years trying to get into Australia illegally, or his friend who had almost died on a smuggler's boat which ran out of food and water.

Western governments tend to see people who arrived uninvited on their shores as a threat. Countries like Australia, which have legal immigration programmes, routinely detain illegal arrivals. In Australia's case, they're housed in remote detention centres like the one at Woomera, in a former rocket testing range in the baking desert.

Poor countries bear the brunt

But what many people fail to recognise is that it's developing countries, not the developed ones that are bearing most of the refugee burden.

Main host countries
1. Pakistan 2m
2. Iran 1.9m
3. Germany 906,000
4. Tanzania 680,682
5. USA 507,290
6. Yugoslavia 484,391
7. Guinea 433,139
8. Sudan 401,027
9. DR Congo 332,464
10. China 294,110
Source: UNHCR 2001
For much of the past two decades Iran has been perhaps the most generous host in the world, sheltering around two million Afghans and Iraqis with very little outside help.

But now its own post- revolution baby boomers are reaching their 20s and finding there aren't enough jobs to go around. The pressure is mounting for the Afghans to go home.

Tanzania, like Iran, has hosted huge numbers of refugees over recent decades. Its earlier "open door" policy for refugees has caused major problems in the past. Camps were militarised by rebel groups from neighbouring countries. Refugees competed with local people for scarce resources. When Rwandan refugees vacated the vast Ngara camp in 1996, they left behind a wasteland.

Nowadays, Tanzania's 500,000 or so refugees live in camps in poor border areas. They have suffered ration cuts - the UN finds it hard to interest donors in long term refugee populations.

Sitting in their makeshift huts inside sprawling camps, they complain that their children are always hungry, that they don't have enough medicine or soap,. And when they read about the amount of money donated to help Kosovar Albanian refugees, they feel discriminated against.

Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata puts the discrepancy down to geography. "Kosovo is in Europe's back yard. If it was not solved, all the Western European countries feared that one million Kosovars would be all over Europe" she said.

She says it is time for Western governments to take a long term view and begin tackling the root causes of displacement. Others argue that more legal immigrants should be allowed into the West to compensate for falling birthrates and take the pressure off the currently abused asylum system.

But according to Bozorgmehr Ziaran of Iran's Foreign Ministry, the West's increasingly desperate attempts to keep people out will have little impact unless Western countries are prepared to address crises in their earliest stages. "Because you can't have an island of prosperity in an ocean of poverty and desperation." He said. "Sooner or later you cannot have these walls…stay up there. People will come in and find a way to stay."

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