The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as:
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Other conventions, groups and organizations have built upon or expanded the UN definition and its scope.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are approximately 62 million refugees today languishing in countries not their own. This number does not include the millions of unfortunate people who fall under the definition of "displaced persons," or "internally displaced persons." The latter are people who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, violence, human rights violation, natural disasters, etc., but who have remained in their own country.
But, regardless of the definitions, regardless of the semantics, regardless of the numbers, we are talking about some of the most desperate and destitute people in the world.
I know, because as a young U.S. Air Force officer, 35 years ago, I saw the misery, the desperation and the total dependence of these people first-hand and up-close, of which I wrote then:
Finally, the first bus arrives and the door opens. A small fragile old lady steps off the bus and breaks down in tears. An exhausted young mother holds on to a tiny baby as she is followed by six more small children -- the father is conspicuously absent.
Another large family gets off the bus; all their belongings are contained in a tattered pillowcase and in a small plastic bag. A young helicopter pilot steps off with just the clothes on his back, but smiling, happy to be alive, happy to be free.
And so it goes on: the farmer, the soldier, those who were wealthy and those who were humble, they all share the same hope for a good new life.
They were the first of several thousand South Vietnamese refugees who would find temporary shelter in a makeshift refugee camp at a sprawling military base in Florida in 1975, after "the fall of Saigon." Over the next eight months, more than 125,000 Vietnamese would flee Vietnam and would be warmly greeted and accepted at other U.S. refugee camps. (Hundreds of thousands additional Vietnamese would be given refuge in our country during the next 10 years.)
America and Americans opened up their hearts and arms to this "first wave" of Vietnamese refugees and to the ones who were to follow. Within a few months the refugees were resettled in communities throughout the U.S. Thousands were graciously welcomed by Americans into their own homes; thousands more were "sponsored" by social and welfare organizations and provided with jobs. The vast majority would become hard-working, productive, loyal and grateful residents of our country.
This was one of the more noble episodes in recent U.S. history dealing with refugees.
Sadly, such has not been the case during the Iraq war, a war that created more than four million Iraqi refugees.
Back in November 2007, at the height of the Iraqi refugee crisis, I wrote in the Stars and Stripes:
More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the carnage in Iraq while... another 2.3 million Iraqis -- most women and children -- have been displaced internally by the sectarian fighting. They live in squalid conditions and in virtual imprisonment in their own country. The plight of the Iraqis who have fled abroad, mostly to Syria and Jordan, is not much better. Thousands flee their country every month, making this the largest diaspora in the Middle East since 1948.
And I criticized the Bush administration for virtually ignoring the refugee crisis.
When our last combat troops pulled out of Iraq several months ago, more than a year after Obama assumed the presidency, we left behind one and a half million Iraqis displaced in their own country, uprooted from their homes, many living in total destitution as squatters in slums and shanty towns in Iraq. An additional 500,000 Iraqi refugees found themselves still languishing and forgotten abroad.
I have criticized the Obama administration for not doing much better.
Now we hear that "A second exodus has begun [in Iraq], of Iraqis who returned after fleeing the carnage of the height of the war, but now find that violence and the nation's severe lack of jobs are pulling them away from home once again."
To make matters worse, the war in Afghanistan is also creating new refugees, especially "internally displaced persons." The UNHCR reports that the number of Afghanistan people displaced in their own country rose from 235,000 in 2008 to 295,000 as of January 2010. Other estimates and forecasts are even grimmer.
Of course, there are other countries and regions where the refugee problem is just as bad or even worse: Sudan, the Palestinian Territories, Myanmar and Azerbaijan are just a few examples.
However, Iraq and Afghanistan are countries where our "involvement" directly or indirectly has led to the creation of millions of new refugees.
During the arrival of the first South Vietnamese refugees at Eglin Air Force Base 35 years ago, I observed the military and civilian professionals and volunteers who were welcoming these unfortunate people and wrote afterward, "The character of a nation is reflected in the faces of these volunteers. Some have flowers in their hands, some have tears in their eyes, all have compassion in their hearts."
I hope that, 35 years hence, America and Americans will once again reflect the "character of a nation" by not forgetting the millions of Iraqi and Afghanistan refugees who are, once again, the wretched legacy of wars they had no hand in.