The number of refugees, displaced people and others of concern to the UNHCR jumped from under 15 million in 1990 to over 22 million in 2000: a 50 percent increase over the decade. Refugees are a symptom of a deeper malaise in the polities from which they have fled. The failure to establish satisfactory coping mechanisms is a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting the world. The treatment meted out to refugees by the host countries — including the entire infrastructure of laws, regulations, administrative practices and personnel — separates a civilized from an uncivilized society.
Poverty, natural and man-made disasters spawn refugees. The demons of displacement include too much government, leading to tyranny; too little government, leading to anarchy; civil, revolutionary and international warfare; economic collapse; epidemics; and mass expulsions.
One catalyst to the sharp rise in refugee numbers is the phenomenon of complex humanitarian emergencies that produce multiple crises: collapsed state structures; humanitarian tragedies caused by starvation, disease or genocide; large-scale fighting and slaughter between rival ethnic or bandit groups; horrific human-rights atrocities; and the risks of competitive intervention by outside powers. The nature, frequency and scale of such emergencies have strained the capacity of international relief agencies, heightened social concerns in host countries, and increased the interest in addressing the roots of the problem and searching for other preventive measures.
Refugees need protection, integration in neighboring countries and resettlement in third countries. Wealthy countries’ aid programs aim in part to eliminate the causes of the refugee problem by contributing to peace, prosperity and stability. Success in development would help the most needy and alleviate the pressures for economic refugees, while peace-building efforts would prevent the eruption of violent conflicts and so avoid the exodus of refugees from war.
We have to address the questions of repatriation to home countries, resettlement in host countries and credible and effective international mechanisms and regimes for coping with refugees. Refugees must not become victims twice over, first of war, and then again of peace by being forced to return home before conditions are right.
The response-time axis may be divided into three phases: before, during and following the crisis of displacement. The degree of government — tyranny and anarchy as causes of refugees — can be addressed in a preventive way if outsiders give greater attention to incipient problems and confront the myth of state sovereignty that precludes outside intervention until after the onset of a full-blown crisis. Economic collapse can be averted through timely and adequate foreign investment and stabilization of commodity prices. One possible solution to the problem of multiethnic societies is partition into two or more states: except that partition too can leave its own enduring legacies of conflict, as in Northern Ireland, the Indian subcontinent and the Korean Peninsula.
The most effective and least disruptive solution would be to institute preventive measures before the situation deteriorates to the point of a massive outflux of refugees. This can include the construction or strengthening of civil society and democratic institutions. Peace-building measures before the onset of a major crisis can be followed by a range of peacekeeping efforts during the immediate crisis of refugees. After the crisis is over, the palliative measures undertaken during it must be followed once again by curative measures designed to tackle the deeper underlying causes.
If the problem of refugees is exacerbated by weakened state structures, then one solution is to strengthen the institutional foundations of fragile states. But a word of caution is in order. In some countries the state is a tool of a narrow family, clique or sect. Strengthening the apparatus of the state in such contexts will give more powerful means of oppression to the dominant group.
The mandate of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has shifted subtly to provide “protection plus solution.” Because it is very difficult to provide protection to skeletons, the UNHCR has moved toward an activist role in the delivery of emergency relief. Humanitarian responses must be guided by protection principles, not political expediency. But because the refugee problem is political as well as humanitarian, the political dimensions of the tragedy must not be ignored.
There is the need to create early warning systems for alerting us to the danger of imminent humanitarian tragedies. nongovernmental organizations could be especially useful components in the early warning network. But again, two notes of caution. First, in many recent cases we have not lacked for early warning of impending disasters. The greater need may be to examine how the world community can be made to heed such warnings.
Second, there is the opposite danger of adopting policies that are driven by the CNN factor — by the electronic images of horror flooding our living rooms during the daily news bulletins. The international media, dominated by Western conglomerates, interprets the world through their eyes. Our responses to humanitarian tragedies should be driven by the needs of the victims and by our capacity to render effective assistance. The resemblance between this and the CNN factor can sometimes be coincidental.
Other genuine tensions and dilemmas confront our efforts to deal with the refugee problem, for example between the logics of peace and justice. Peace is forward-looking and may require reconciliation between rival communities that have to learn to live together once again. Justice looks back and requires trial and punishment of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. But the pursuit of human-rights violators can delay and impede the effort to establish conditions of security so that displaced people can return home and live in relative peace once again. The tension must be reconciled on a case-by-case basis rather than on a rigid formula. And it is best resolved by the countries concerned, not by outsiders. Europeans in particular must resist the temptation to embark on a new wave of judicial colonialism.
Humanitarian agencies are also having to face up to ambiguities in the field. The Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai side of the border were the main catchment area for the Khmer Rouge cadres. Were international agencies, in helping the Cambodian refugees, in effect sustaining the Khmer Rouge? Likewise, to what extent were outside agencies, in helping to alleviate the sufferings of Rwandans in refugee camps, sustaining rival groups of killers?
How do we reconcile community obligations toward large numbers of internally and externally displaced people with the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty? On the other side of the equation, limits exist to the physical, environmental, bureaucratic and social capacity of any country to absorb refugees.
The dilemmas and tensions in turn highlight the need for strategies and solutions that integrate national, regional and global efforts, and for mechanisms that coordinate the efforts of national governments, NGOs and international organizations. Partnership is called for between the different provider organizations, not conflict and competition.
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