Refugees of War Zones: Men, Women and Children in Flight

Refugees of War Zones: Men, Women and Children in Flight

Washington : DC : USA | Jun 06, 2011 at 8:21 AM PDT
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The haunting eyes of the 12 year old girl in the picture reveal her misfortune as she fled her native Afghanistan in 1983 for a refugee camp in Pakistan. It is one of the most famous covers of National Geographic Magazine. Photograph by Steve McCurry.

The photograph became a symbol of the strength and the stress of refugees, people who must leave their homes to escape danger or persecution. Due to the strict rules in the girl's culture about taking photographs, especially of women, McCurry was never able to contact this girl to tell her that her picture was on the cover of National Geographic magazine! In fact, he never even knew her name.

This picture taken 28 years ago is engraved in our collective memory and symbolizes the story of many who journeyed out of war torn Afghanistan. How many refugees have suffered a similar plight out of Afghanistan since then? Still today, her story is one of many being played out every day as refugees flea their native lands never knowing if they will procure safe passage out of their country or if they will ever be able to return.

Refugees International categorizes refugees in part as the following, although the organization’s outreach goes to many other areas worldwide including women and children’s protection and rights as well as peacekeeping.

Climatic Displaced persons includes weather related disasters, environmental degradation, and changing climate conditions. This category has increased in volume over the last decade, and definitely is an area to watch in the future as glaciers recede and ice melt flooding formerly habitable regions forces people to evacuate their homelands, many who have lived and thrived there for centuries.

Statelessness Displaced person occurs when an individual is without citizenship and has been displaced usually by a previous internal conflict. An example of this happened with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. “After the collapse of the USSR, no one was really sure how to categorize the more than half a million former Soviet citizens who found themselves on Latvian territory. Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and other former Soviet nationalities were all broadly included, and called “Russian” despite the inaccuracy of the term.”

War and Conflict Displaced persons will be the focus of this article. These are men, women and children who have had to leave their homeland due to ongoing wars and internal political and economic conflicts. Their stories do not end with their departure from war torn homelands. Rather, their strife takes on other frightening attributes as they attempt to survive being displaced and consider whether returning to their homeland is possible or the safest choice.

The countries in this article are a few examples of countries undergoing the upheaval of war. It is important to note that while these countries struggle in civil wars, the receiving countries likewise struggle financially to provide adequately for refugees in terms of housing, medical care, education for children, and jobs for the displaced. This is a challenge for any country; still, many countries do not turn refugees away.

However, the one blight on humanity is the fact that some countries would not receive Jewish refugees seeking refuge from Hitler’s regime and the Nazi’s during World War II. This is a sad chapter in our human history.


Reports suggest that the current number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan amounts to over 2 million even with some repatriation from Iran and Pakistan. A total of 935,600 refugees and 2,000 asylum seeking Afghans live in Iran, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Some 2,500 Afghan refugees are also found in Russia and a tiny undisclosed number in Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Because Afghanistan is not ready to accept so many returnees at this point, the UNHCR is slowly shifting small numbers of refugees for resettlement in third countries, mainly in the European Union, North America, and Australia. Statistics from Wikipedia.

As an encouragement to returnees, they are supposedly provided free plot of land by the government of Afghanistan to build a new home.


Syria, sharing a 375 mile border with Iraq, received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and triggered years of bloody sectarian strife. Many are just now beginning to return to Iraq nine years later, as Syria is no longer a safe haven.


Ironically Iraq's government sent planes to bring back a total of 3,734 Iraqi nationals from Egypt, Yemen and Libya this year after they requested evacuation from those war torn areas to which they sought asylum when the Iraq war broke out.

Haider Farid, a physician, returned to Iraq last week from Yemen on a plane sent by the Iraqi government.

"My family and I decided to return home because the situation in Yemen is worsening," he told Reuters.

"We left Iraq seeking safety and now as there is no security in Yemen, we made up our minds to come home," said Farid, who was visiting the Migration and Displacement Ministry to file the documents needed for him to receive the returnee grant.

Tunisia: Libyan Refugees

Qatar has opened a government-financed refugee camp in southern Tunisia to host Libyans fleeing violence in their country, a camp official said this week.

The camp provides refuge to 1,600 people out of around 60,000 Libyans who have flooded the region following violent clashes between insurgents and forces loyal to Colonel Moamer Gaddafi, said camp manager Mohamed Al-Koubaythi.

Tunisian Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi stressed Tuesday the importance of speeding the evacuation of refugees who were still living in the camps, Tunisian state-run press agency TAP reported.

Zbidi made the remarks during the meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) commissioner for refugees in North Africa Yacoub El Hillo.

The meeting focused on the situation in the Choucha camp, two thirds of which was recently destroyed in clashes between African refugees and local population, reported in

Italy: A Country Receiving Refugees

Italian coast guards rescued 210 refugees escaping conflict in Libya as the interior minister complained of inaction by neighbouring Malta, reported by AP.

Their broken vessel was detected 62 miles south of the island of Lampedusa drifting aimlessly on the Mediterranean. Italian coast guard patrol boats brought the passengers safely to land.

A search-and-rescue grid governs the Mediterranean and is often the source of tension between Italy, which is bearing the brunt of the arrivals, and Malta, whose enormous search-and-rescue area comes very close to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni accused neighboring Malta of "once again" shirking its responsibilities, leaving it up to Italy to "avoid a new tragedy.”

Italy is reporting tens of thousands of refugees earlier this year came to their shores’ reception centers.

It is estimated that nearly 12,500 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya have arrived in Italy since the end of March and another 1,107 in Malta, an accidental destination for most, carried by wind and current. The Italian arrivals included some eight boats with an estimated 1,300 people on one day.

Do Refugees Want to Return to Their Homeland and What Are the Risks?

In the African Nation of Angola, at least 59,000 refugees living in neighboring countries expressed voluntary desire to come back to Angola this year, said the Social Welfare minister, João Baptista Kussumua, in Luanda.

The opposite is true for Columbians in South America. 90% of people displaced by violence in Colombia do not want to return to their homelands, claims a report presented by UNHCR's representative in Colombia.

Jean-Nöel Wetterwald, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Colombia, concluded his term of office with a report which stated that only 10% of Colombians displaced by conflict have any serious desire to return to their homelands.

Land Mines and Forced Military Recruitment

The presence of land mines in rural regions and the practice of forced recruitment into illegal groups are both worsening, and the report stresses the worrying fact that of the 3 to 4 million refugees in the country, between 30 and 40% are underage, reported El Espectador , a Columbian news website.

In addition, the expansion of the country's armed conflict to areas where the state has less presence is one reason for the forced uprooting of civilians most prevalent in regions such as Nariño, Choco, Arauca, Antioquia and Tolima.

In an article as far back as 1994 the then Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Ghali in Land Mines Crisis: A Humanitarian Crisis writes, “The U.N. estimates that, in the course of recent civil and international strife, more than 100 million land mines have been laid in 62 countries.” Further he states, “Most of the nearly 20 million refugees in the world today want to return home, but U.N. assistance for repatriation and the repopulation of former war zones is impeded by the problem of uncleared land mines.”

Now many years later the land mine crisis is ever present in former war zones such as Bosnia and Iraq where clearance of land mines continues.

Despite the disturbing history of land mine usage and the death and dismemberment they cause, they are still being used.

CNN reported in April this year that each year some 4,000 people worldwide are maimed or killed by stepping on unexploded land mines or cluster bombs left over from previous conflicts.

In Libya, Human Rights Watch reported last March 2011 that Gadaffi is planting land mines. “(Benghazi) - Muammar Gaddafi's forces have laid both antipersonnel and anti-vehicle mines during the current conflict with armed opposition groups, Human Rights Watch confirmed today.”

In 2009 in it was reported: Deception Used to Enlist Refugees to Fight in Somalia. “The Kenyan government should immediately stop the recruitment of Somalis in refugee camps to fight for an armed force in Somalia, Human Rights Watch said today. Kenyan authorities have directly supported the drive, which has recruited hundreds of Somali men and boys in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps as well as Kenyan citizens from nearby towns.”

Child Soldiers in Forced Military Recruitment

The United Nations reports, “Ideally, camps for refugees or the internally displaced should be places of safety, offering protection and assistance. However, old power struggles are often reproduced and traditional systems of social protection come under strain or break down completely. There are often high levels of violence, substance abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and forcible [military] recruitment.”

The recruitment of displaced children as soldiers continues to be a problem worldwide. Organizations like The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers works diligently to raise awareness. The coalition works to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, to secure their demobilization and to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Reports of child soldiers as young as eight or nine are recruited.

  • Most child soldiers are aged between 14 and 18, While many enlist "voluntarily" research shows that such adolescents see few alternatives to involvement in armed conflict. Some enlist as a means of survival in war-torn regions after family, social and economic structures collapse or after seeing family members tortured or killed by government forces or armed groups. Others join up because of poverty and lack of work or educational opportunities. Many girls have reported enlisting to escape domestic servitude, violence and sexual abuse.

According to The Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers many countries around the world engage in this practice: Colombia in South America, Russia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Chad, Guinea, Serra Leon, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Uganda, Somalia, Angola.


The plight of refugees is as old as recorded history, yet the resiliency of the human spirit is as apparent today as it was in ancient times. A country’s demographics expand and contract with the growth of migrating populations; however, forced migrations as a result of war turning those escaping harm into refugees bear the additional burden of producing displaced persons who are many times mistreated and abused. Some cannot return to their country of origin for fear that the landscape has been littered with landmines or they will be recruited into military operations against their will by rebels. But for many the pull to return to their homeland is like a compass that always points home, and they return despite the dangers and unknown that await them.

Like the little 12 year old Afghani girl with the haunting face who captured our imagination 28 years ago, today we are reminded of the millions who, like her, have been displaced and whose future is fraught with uncertainty.





El Espectador (Columbian website)

United Nations Website

National Geographic Archival Picture

Refugees International

Land Mines Crisis by Boutros Ghali

Human Rights Watch

The Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers

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National Geographic Cover
Picture taken 28 years ago of a 12 year old refugee girl in Afghanistan is one of the most famous covers of National Geographic Magazine. Photograph by Steve McCurry.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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