High Price of Refugees

By , Judy Mayotte, a senior fellow of the Refugee Policy Group in Washington, is writing a book on long-term refugees through a MacArthur Foundation grant.

THE office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), twice winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, is struggling for its survival. Established by the UN General Assembly in 1951, its mandate is to provide ``international protection'' and seek ``permanent solutions'' for refugees. This mandate is threatened with extinction for lack of adequate resources. Even though donors are actually giving more by 27 percent, the organization's needs have grown by 44 percent for the approximately 15 million refugees it serves around the world. Some $427 million is needed for 1989 general programs and $232 million for special programs. The projected shortfall for general programs is $100 million; for special programs, $50 million - almost 25 percent. As various world budgets go, this is not a large one. Nevertheless, it is a vitally necessary one.

The last 10 years have seen marked changes in the nature, magnitude, and complexity of the world's refugee population. In 1979 hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were on the move. Afghans fled into Pakistan and Iran by the millions. Starvation and civil conflict pushed more from their homes in the Horn of Africa, Mozambique, and Central America.

The majority of these refugees have neither returned home nor settled in a third country. In no period have so many remained rootless. In 1976, UNHCR required $90 million to operate; by 1980, $510 million.

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Refugees are created by conflict and persecution situations they neither create nor want. They flee their homelands to survive. They are courageous, competent people who have the drive and desire for survival and independence, but who as refugees live a precarious, fragile, and dependent existence in fear and hope.

More often then not, they leave empty-handed. To survive they need the bare basics of food, water, shelter, sanitation, and health care. Human life, though, reaches beyond mere maintenance.

Seventy-five percent of refugees are women and children and are the most vulnerable. Without education, we risk losing a generation of children. Without special income-generating programs, women particularly suffer. Maintenance alone invites a dependence that becomes more deadly as years progress. Condemning many of the 15 million refugees to a life of dependency squanders their futures. It can be difficult to turn such dependency around when, years later, these people might return home. Relief, development, and the push toward self-sufficiency must operate in tandem from the beginning of exile. But this costs money.

Many of today's refugees may have the opportunity to repatriate soon. In Pakistan, for example, 3.5 million Afghans are poised and waiting to return home. They will return to a land where there are an estimated 15 million mines planted throughout the countryside. Most of the land has not been tilled for 10 years. The ancient and effective irrigation system has been decimated. Villages have been destroyed. Nomads have lost their herds, farmers their soil, and merchants their bazaars.

Resettlement will be a slow and expensive process. This is not a population that can be given repatriation kits and be sent on their way home. Nor is it a place where feeding centers can be set up at various locations inside Afghanistan. If either approach is taken, new refugee camps will spring up inside the homeland, and the people will suffer as great a loss as they did in exile.

The UNHCR and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are working on both sides of the border. As they maintain the programs they have developed inside Pakistan, they are working with Afghans inside Afghanistan to deal with the questions of demining, revitalizing the earth, reseeding, rebuilding the irrigation system, developing health stations and immunization programs, and more.

But the resources are not there for them to continue the work they have begun. The same is true for their work with other refugee populations. It will be a tragedy if - on the eve of going home - these people and the 15 million other refugees who have fled their homelands are forgotten.

We seem to be willing to pay the price for war and oppression. Are we willing to pay the costly price for peace?

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