Be they Afghan, Kurd or Khmer, there were more than 20 million refugees in the world in 1994. I have been tracking this population of uprooted individuals, chased by a regime that rejects them, or thrown out of their country by ethnic intolerance, fleeing drought, famine or wars. During more than one year, spread over a decade, I went to those places where families of displaced people wait for more than a bowl of rice. They wait for a possibility to take their life in their own hands again.
1986-88 Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico
Numbering 40,000, the refugees having fled the civil war in Guatemala were assembled in refugee camps along the border in Chiapas. By 1984 most of them were relocated in Campeche state before returning to their homeland in the 90's.
1987 Sri Lankan Refugees in India
From the same ethnic origin as the inhabitants of their refuge country, 200000 Sri Lankan refugees arrived in the mid 80s in Tamil Nadu State in India, fleeing the civil war. They long served as a safe haven for the Tamil Tigers fighting against the Cinghalese government troops to obtain the independence of Northern Sri Lanka. After a failed intervention of the Indian army in Sri Lanka and the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian authorities became much less tolerant towards the Tamil refugees.
1988 Refugees in Honduras
Honduras welcomed refugees from two different neighbouring countries with mixed feelings. About 15000 refugees from El Salvador, controlled by marxist organisations, arrived between 1980 and 1985. Another 15000 refugees, mostly Misquito indians and right wing Ladino fleeing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua arrived between 1982 and 1984. By 1992 all had regained their country of origin.
1988 Sudanese Displaced
The population of South Sudan, caught in a 25-year old civil war with the Arabic Northern Sudanese, paid a heavy tribute to the cynical management of food aid by the Khartoum government. Besides the 300000 refugees in Ethiopia, there were about 1 million displaced within the country itself. During the rainy season of the summer of 1988, 250000 people died from starvation in the country. Exactly the same situation would again prevail in 1999 and again in 2004 with the refugees in Darfour.
1989 Bulgarian Refugees in Turkey
Fleeing an intensified religious repression by the still communist government of Bulgaria against the Muslims from Turkish origin, about 350000 people left the country with a tourist visa and sought refuge in Turkey. The Ankara government made a point of honour to properly welcome and integrate their brothers in religion in a country itself confronted with a difficult economic situation.
1989 Khmer Refugees in Thailand
Fleeing the genocidal regime of Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979 and the invasion/liberation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army, the Khmer population crossed the border to Thailand massively in two waves. In 1991 15000 Cambodians with a refugee status and 300000 displaced still remained in camps along the border. Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, the UNHCR repatriated all of them. The last repatriations (Khmer Rouge refugee camps) took place in 1999.
1989 Romanian Refugees in Hungary
In March 1989, Hungary, then about to make radical political changes, welcomed 50000 refugees fleeing Ceaucescu’s Romania. 80 percent of the refugees being from Hungarian origin, they are rapidly integrated in the society. The remaining 6000 or so try to reach Western Europe by all means to ask for political asylum, a few months before the Iron Curtain would be torn down. Many years later I would receive a postcard from California. One of the refugees was running a gym in San Diego...
1990 Afghan Refugees in Pakistan
Following the invasion of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, 2 million people sought refuge in Iran and 3 million in Pakistan, making it the biggest refugee population at the time. Many of the Pakistan refugee camps became a breeding ground for religious integrism.
1991 Karen Refugees in Thailand
In 1991, the 45000 Karen refugees, one of the many Burmese ethnic minorities at war with the military dictatorship of Yangon, did not have any legal status in Thailand, preventing UNHCR aid of reaching them. They were merely tolerated by Bangkok who played a game of alliances with the Burmese and the Karen resistance according to their commercial interests.
1991 Mozambican Refugees in Malawi
Since 1985 the civil war in Mozambique pushed 900000 people to flee to Malawi, a small country of barely 9 million people. Another 400000 Mozambicans fled to South Africa.
1992 Kurdish Displaced in Iraq
In 1992, 1 1/2 years after the first Gulf War against Iraq, the Kurdish uprising and Baghdad’s repression, the Kurds were living in a de facto autonomous country, coping with a thoroughly destroyed country, an Iraqi blocade and 350000 displaced.
1992 Rohingya Burmese in Bangladesh
In 1991, and for the second time in 10 years, 350000 Burmese Rohingya out of a 3 million strong Muslim community fled to Bangla Desh, following religious repression by the military regime of Yangon. Dhaka, with very limited resources, did everything it could to prevent them to want to stay.
1994 Angolan Internally Displaced
Cubal, a town in the middle of Angola, lies 30 km from the frontline since the UNITA rebels shattered the peace accords in 1992. 70000 people fled to the ruined city, doubling its population, putting a heavy strain on its meager resources in food. The surrounding land of the city being insecure or mined, food aid is flown in at irregular intervals, only partially fulfilling the need of 2000 tons of food/ month.
1999 Kosovar Refugees in Albania
The last Intimidation: Towards the end of the refugee crisis with the Kosovar people seeking shelter in Albania during the war in ex-Yugoslavia, the Serbian authorities put hundreds of Kosovar prisoners in buses without telling them where they were sent. The prisoners, convinced they were going to be executed, were dropped on the roadside and told to walk. They were in fact dropped a few kilometer from the Albanian border. Arriving there in a terrible state of shock, they were taken care of by the UNHCR and brought to Kukes to try and reunite with members of their family.
2000 Chechen Refugees in Georgia
The Duisi market is busy. Battered Lada are parked near what once used to be a supermarket. The open trunks are loaded with second-hand clothes, spare parts for cars, chocolate bars or vegetables. Old women sell colourfull jars of preserved peaches on the side of an abandoned well. A stove sells for two bags of flour. The men greet each other as if they were wrestling. Bent over, they bump their left shoulder against the other's, the head turned sideways, one arm around the other's waist. They are Chechen refugees in Georgia's sealed-off Pankisi valley.
2017 Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
’Only poets and singers feel with us, the others listen but don't care’. The Syrian war has triggered a 1,5 million refugee flow towards Lebanon, starting in 2011. The burden on the country with 6 million people since 6 years is immense, and despite efforts by the UNHCR, living conditions for many are difficult. Scattered in camps with shelters in the Hezbollah controlled Beqaa Valley or in empty garages or buildings under construction elsewhere, the refugees face a bleak future as long as the civil war rages on in their country.