Refugees from Planet Earth

refugeesby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

War, disease, economic devastation, and catastrophic geologic and climate events create refugees every day. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants’  World Refugee Survey 2008, worldwide there are currently over 14 million. An additional 25 million people are displaced internally and so are not considered in refugee totals. In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, the advances of Tutsi Rebels have displaced 200,000 people since August.

But those are just numbers. And they’re so big, it’s hard to understand what they even mean on a personal level, to the people who are refugees—and to the people who are not.

People Without a Place

To be a person without a place is to be

  • a burden to someone else. As such, the refugee is unwanted.
  • rootless. The refugee is bereft of the social support of community, job, home, friends, school, place of worship, connections. In short, all he or she has left might be a bundle of personal possessions, a few family members, and, if fortunate, daily access to food and water.
  • on hold. Until the refugee again has a place in the world, he or she faces an immense challenge in raising a family, in making a meaningful contribution to society, in feeling worthwhile, and in establishing meaningful connections within a community.
  • in a power imbalance. Other people wield control over the refugee’s life. The refugee cannot vote, cannot complain, cannot work to change his or her circumstances, cannot demand basic civil rights.
  • in danger. Being a refugee means being subject to violence, to climate-caused hardship, to starvation, to illness, to rape, and to enslavement. In the three Somali refugee camps in northeast Kenya, the 100,000 refugees are subject to frequent attacks from bandits and militias. Their possessions are often stolen. The women are raped when they leave the camp to collect firewood or during bandit invasions. More than 300 rapes have been documented, 10 of them blamed on Kenyan police. In the Saharwi camps near Tindouf in the Algerian desert, where nearly 90,000 Saharwi have lived for 30 years, many refugees are enslaved, having become the property of other refugees in the camps. In August, Spanish police across the country freed 600 Russian sex slaves, economic refugees who had come to Spain for the promise of work picking strawberries. These are just a few examples of what a refugee faces.

Your New Neighbors

The United States has promised to admit 17,000 Iraqi refugees next year, up from 12,000 this year. (This figure pales in comparison to the burden shouldered by Syria, Jordan, and other neighboring countries of Iraq, which have taken in 1.5 million Iraqis.) The Center for Immigration Studies reports that 1.6 million legal and illegal immigrants, many of whom are economic refugees, settle in the United States each year. The Center predicts that if immigration continues at current levels, the nation’s population will increase by 167 million (56 percent)  by 2060, with immigrants and their descendants accounting for 63 percent of the increase. But immigration will not continue at current levels. Instead, as a result of climate change, it will most certainly increase as increasing refugee populations look for places to relocate.

What does it mean to be the host country of refugees? First there is an economic burden, as health care, education, and social service resources are increasingly tapped. Second there is the burden of social unrest caused when large numbers of desperate people suddenly pour into an area and begin to consume already scant resources.

Planet of Refugees?

Climate change will bring refugee status and the burden of refugee hosting to people in all parts of the world. The UN has warned that the numbers of refugees are again on the rise, and that climate change is creating a new type of refugee. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees explains: “Climate change is today one of the main drivers of forced displacement, both directly through impact on environment—not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living—and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict.” The Christian Aid Agency predicts that there will be a total of one billion people displaced by climate change by 2050.

Where are all the displaced people going to go? You can be sure that refugees are coming to your neighborhood, if you remain lucky enough to still have one. And the refugees will not just be human. We will be seeing refugees of every species in search of hospitable places on earth, looking for food, looking for water, looking for shelter.

If climate change remains unchecked, we are all in danger of becoming refugees from Planet Earth. Except there is no other place to go.

Image by Tracy Hunter, Creative Commons license, 2007.

©2008 ProgressiveKid

3 Responses

  1. A quick couple of comments about your summary of the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf, Algeria. The figure of 90,000 is not the total number of refugees, but the figure that was used a couple of years ago by the World Food Programme for people “at risk” of hunger. Previously the WFP had estimated those at risk at around 153,000. Some have argued that this downgrading was politically motivated, with the WFP responding to pressure from donors who wanted to exert pressure on the Polisario independence movement to accept Morocco’s offer of limited autonomy (but which precludes the UN mandated referendum on self-determination).

    As for the allegations of slavery, these are highly suspect, based on claims made by an Australian journalist who visited the camps and had some trouble with the Polisario. Original claims that she interviewed a slave subsequently became claims of “thousands” of slaves being abused in the camps. These claims have been widely propagated by Morocco and its allies, who have a vested interest in discrediting Polisario – both maintain competing claims to Western Sahara. Those who have spent time in the camps (including myself) dismiss the slavery claims as propaganda. While slavery existed in Western Sahara in the past, and still exists in neighbouring Mauritania, Polisario formally banned it in the early days of the independence struggle. Whatever the situation in the camps (and the legacy of slavery may linger in terms of social inequality and exploitative relationships), claims of institutional slavery and thousands of people living as slaves are extremely suspect, and are based more on propaganda than any evidence. One has to be extremely careful when assessing what is going on in Western Sahara and the camps due to the very nasty propaganda campaign that is being waged predominantly – it has to be said – by Morocco. Don’t take anything you hear at face value – even from me. Instead, dig around for information from sources that are as impartial as possible – international agencies, human rights organisations, and so on.

    More from me on this at Also on the excellent “One hump or two” and “Western Sahara Info” blogs.

  2. Thanks, Nick, for your comment, especially the part about the numbers of people in the Sahrawi camps.

    I’m somewhat less appreciative of your little slap that one should “Dig around for information from sources that are as impartial as possible.” Of course! Please note (not that I’m feeling defensive or anything!):
    1. My info. came from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
    2. These reports have been corroborated by respected newspapers such as El Pais from Spain and the Malian newspaper Lobe.
    3. In October, Anja Oksalampi , the Secretary General of Yaakar Redhric Association, addressed the 4th Committee of the UN General Assembly to express her concern about the fate of the people held against their will in Tindouf, “the slaves of the Polisario Front.” I assume the UN does not allow such interruptions unless there is a certain amount of credibility to the speaker.
    4. I intentionally did not claim there were “thousands” but used the vague “many,” because accurate statistics are not available.

    I appreciate careful attention to detail and your dedication to ensuring that the truth about the camps be told.

  3. Citizengoat,

    There are many individuals and bodies that support one view or the other about the situation in Western Sahara. There are many organisations, especially in the US, that have swallowed Moroccan propaganda hook, line and sinker. I personally think the analysis of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants leaves something to be desired – they also have the numbers wrong (they cite 90,000 refugees), which suggests sloppy reliance on other sources which they haven’t checked.

    The UN takes evidence from people representing both sides in the conflict – presumably in the interests of balance – and competing claims are often made in these sessions. Credibility is often in the eye of the beholder. In the past we’ve heard Moroccan claims about children being deported by the Polisario to Cuba for abuse (actually children are sent there on educational programmes). Morocco has complained about this to the UN and the UNHCR has investigated, dismissing the Moroccan claims ( This was all aired in UN committee sessions, which are as much an opportunity for the parties to the conflict and their supporters to grandstand and present claims and counter claims as they are for sober objective analysis of the situation.

    You’ll find pro-Polisario statements to the UN too (e.g. here Both sideThe fact that something is claimed within the walls of a UN committee does not make it true.

    There are many claims and counter claims about the camps around Tindouf (from where I’ve just returned after attending a cultural festival where I talked about our archaelogical work in the Polisario-controlled areas). I don’t think any of these are based on actual studies of the situation based on access to and interviews with people in the camps. What we have is a claim by a journalist (Violeta Ayala) and repeated assertions by Rabat and its allies. As someone who’s spent time in the camps I can say I’ve seen no evidence of slavery, and that I’d be extremely surprised if it went on, or was sanctioned in any way by the Polisario. Of course it’s not something people would broadcast to a foreigner. But the impression one gets is not one of a slave owning society in which “white” Moors “own” black African slaves, as has been portrayed (and as exists in Mauritania). The Sahrawi are diverse in their ethnic background (Arab, Berber and sub-Saharan African), and people of all hues hold positions of authority in the Polisario administration. Of course never say never, but the picture of a slave owning society is not one I, or any other foreigners living and working in the camps with whom I’ve spoken, recognise. Perhaps the people who talk about slavery should support a credible organisation to undertake a proper study in the camps – this would mean pressuring Polisario into allowing it, but I think it might be worth it for all concerned to find out whether there is any truth to these claims. But the truth might not be convenient to those making the claims of slavery, who often do so for political purposes (present company excepted, I’m sure).

    Of course there are restrictions on movement outside the camps, which are effectively a mini-state within Algeria – people need documentation to travel and can’t just wander into Algeria without the right documentation and a permit to do so. I imagine that this is not terribly unusual for long-term internationally displaced persons living in another country as the result of an unresolved political conflict. That said, many, many Sahrawi study in Algeria, Libya, Cuba and elsewhere. Some return to the camps and others don’t. People are travelling in and out of the camps all the time, from camp to camp, into Algeria and internationally. I met a guy there last week who had returned after 20 years in Cuba. A friend with whom I was staying was picking relatives up from the airport in Tindouf (from the Canary Islands) the night before I left. People are coming and going all the time. Many Sahrawi also travel to Mauritania across the open border, and from the camps to the “Free Zone” of Western Sahara, the latter after good rains when they practice something akin to their old semi-nomadic lifestyle. The region around Tifariti (which I also visited last week) is particularly green now, and as a result is quite lively with people from the camps who keep herds there (managed by family members) – when conditions permit they move to the Free Zone to enjoy a diet rich in camel milk as opposed to food aid. So, while there is control of people’s movements as in many parts of the world, I would say that claims that people are held in the camps – effectively as hostages – with no opportunity to leave, are vastly exaggerated. The camps are run as a state in exile – a state within a state, and movement out of the camps into Algeria is treated as movement from one country to another. But it does happen, and widely. Groups like USCRI seem to be asking that the Sahrawi refugees are assimilated into Algerian society, which is precisely what Morocco wants – for the Sahrawi to disappear as a group.

    There is a lot of argument about the details of life in the camps and the behaviour of the Polisario which is based largely on slander and propaganda and which rather misses the point that the refugees are there as a result of Morocco’s invasion and partial annexation of Western Sahara (including the most habitable and resource-rich areas). If as much attention were paid to persuading Morocco to allow the referendum which the UN mandated and which Morocco originally signed up to as is spent accusing the Polisario of everything short of cannibalism, perhaps the Sahrawi could enjoy the same rights as most of the rest of us, including the right to self-determination as required by a number of UN resolutions on Western Sahara and officially supported by pretty much everybody apart from the government in Rabat. Certainly a lot of the propaganda from Morocco and its allies is intended to shift the debate away from the subject of the referendum, and to suggest that the Sahrawi do not deserve independence because of the allegedly monstrous nature of the Polisario. It’s a pity when well-meaning people jump on bandwagons and end up unwittingly supporting the occupation and, by extension, colonialism.

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