Refugees With Nothing to Return to

AS Bosnia-Herzegovina plunges into fratricide and we witness the world's newest refugees streaming out of their villages, it is worth reflecting on the irony of language that uses the word "civil" to define this most uncivil of wars. "Civil," of course, because unlike wars across international frontiers, these are defined as wars that pit citizens of the same country against each other. And - the crowning incivility - the very targets of these wars are often civilians. Unlike the most recent internationa l war, the Gulf war, where civilian casualties could plausibly, albeit callously, be dismissed as "collateral damage," here they are the central focus of attack.

The purpose is to establish an ethnically homogenous tract of land from which a "nation" can be born, or, as in Serbia's case, expand its hold into areas where ethnic compatriots reside. Not since the Nazis sought to make Germany "Judenrein" has Europe seen such concerted movement toward ethnic homogeneity and such total disregard for the rights - even the humanity - of other ethnic groups.

In the former Soviet Union, Armenians and Azeris target civilians in each side's bid to lay claim to the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. More than 500,000 Armenians and Azeris have already been displaced in that conflict; the entire Azeri population of Armenia has fled, and some 300,000 Armenians, in turn, have been driven from Azerbaijan.

Georgia moved quickly to proclaim itself a republic for Georgians, and its Ossetian minority found itself endangered; 100,000 Ossetians fled Georgia last year. Predictably, 18,000 Georgians soon ran from south Ossetia into Georgia.

In the ruins of Yugoslavia, the movement of homeless populations is staggering. They are not "collateral damage." No, they are the very essence of the struggle - the placement of people is the reason for their displacement. It was clear to an 11-year-old Croatian boy I met in a Slovenian refugee camp. "We were threatened all the time by the Chetnik people [Serbian guerrillas]. They wanted the town empty. The [Croatian] government told us to stay. We couldn't decide whether to stay or go."

The high degree of ethnic integration in Yugoslavia, particularly in the tinderboxes of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, is the reason its dismemberment has become so wrenching. Homogenous Slovenia could go its own way with minimal struggle. But elsewhere, the ethnic patchwork had to be sorted out. And separating the various groups could not be achieved peacefully.

The closest frame of reference for what is now unfolding in Yugoslavia and parts of the former Soviet Union is, frighteningly, Lebanon. Nearly one-third of Lebanon's total population was uprooted by its civil war. The number still displaced is estimated at 750,000. The objective of the displacement was the destruction of Lebanon's plural society. Beirut became a divided city. Muslims to the West, Christians to the East.

It was only after another, stronger force, Syria, entered from outside that the power of Lebanon's militias was effectively challenged and peace imposed on the country. But large segments of the civilian population remain displaced, and ethnic minorities are unable to return to areas populated with a different ethnic majority. Can the civil war be said to be resolved in the absence of a return of refugees to their homes?

If the reason for the civil war, the goal of the fighting, was to remove unwanted minorities, then under what conditions could they return without precipitating a renewal of hostilities?

This is why Europe's nationalist struggles are presenting such a challenge today. As the objects of war, and not merely the consequences, refugees become inextricably tied to the outcomes. Resolution of a conflict does not necessarily mean repatriation, which has been the preferred solution during the 40-year existence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

During this time, borders basically remained unchanged; people moved. Refugees fled their governments, crossed the borders to another country where they found asylum. UNHCR assisted them in camps or, if the political changes in the home country looked permanent and the differences with the refugee irreconcilable, resettled them in a third country.

But the first option was always repatriation because it meant that the root cause of flight had been resolved. After a repressive regime was overthrown, or a peace settlement reached, the refugees could return.

But Europe is entering a new era. New nations are emerging. Borders themselves are shifting, being redrawn. Consequently, displacement of populations is taking on a more permanent character. From the point of view of the nationalist, displacement no longer necessarily means exile. It can also mean consolidation, a restoration, a "return" to a mythic or ancestral homeland.

But, in reality, civilians are not choosing their national identity. On the contrary, it is being thrust on them through force on the basis of their ethnicity. The ethnic minority member forced to flee to an area where his group represents a majority is not "coming home." His home has been destroyed.

The international community needs to reaffirm the right of minorities to live in safety and equality with their neighbors, and to assert that the forced transfer of any population against its will violates its fundamental human rights. But saying that intolerance will not be countenanced doesn't change the reality. Like it or not, the lines are being drawn. These are real turf battles.

For humanitarian organizations that deal less with the causes of conflict than with picking up the pieces, the new refugee movements present a further challenge. While we are reluctant to accept faits accomplis and want to maintain fundamental principles - such as the right to choose where to live and to be secure in one's home - we also must seek solutions that offer real sustenance, and not false hope.

For the more than 700,000 who lost their homes in Croatia, and for the 380,000 who, so far, have been rendered homeless in Bosnia in the most recent outbreak of fighting, going home may never be possible. The refugees say it themselves. A Croatian woman who was forced to flee the Serbian-declared autonomous region in Banija told me, "I might want to go back to my home, but they have destroyed it. All the houses have been burned and torn down. Nothing remains. We couldn't go back."

For this woman and hundreds of thousands like her, repatriation is an empty promise. Right or wrong - and unquestionably it is wrong - she has been pushed out. And return does not look like a real option. But what now? Under the UNHCR framework three permanent solutions for refugees are offered: repatriation, local integration in the region, and third-country resettlement. None sounds relevant.

One group excluded from the UNHCR mandate was the Palestinian refugees who already fell under the mandate of another international organization, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Palestinians never fit the model followed by other refugee populations after World War II. Theirs was not an exile resulting from the cold war, but rather resulting from war between irreconcilable ethnic groups driven by nationalistic aspirations. Then, as now, a solution rests on territorial compromise, par tition, a transfer of populations, and compensation for all the displaced and dispossessed. The solution for the Palestinian refugees has remained elusive, most would say intractable, because the nationality question that underlies the displacement remains unresolved.

Are the Croats and Muslims of Serbian-controlled areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to be the new Palestinians? Perhaps this fate can be avoided. Partition may be inevitable, and acknowledging its inevitability may help the international community to arrive at peaceful arrangements to minimize bloodshed and loss. We need to begin to think of ways to ease transitions of national groupings peacefully into statehood and other satisfactory arrangements, while at the same time maintaining full respect fo r human rights. Clear guidelines for the protection of minority groups need to be the sine qua non of their recognition by the community of nations.

At the same time, the international humanitarian community ought to take a fresh look at the concept of the peaceful and voluntary transfer of populations or democratically ratified border adjustments to see how these approaches might help to avert bloodshed while according with human rights principles.

Repatriation programs provide a model as well as a warning. While it is true that repatriation, when voluntary, is the optimal durable solution for a refugee, if it is not voluntary, return to the home country is the worst outcome - in fact, it is a violation of Article 33 of the Refugee Convention. We should examine population transfers in the same light. If based on completely voluntary and informed choice by the people being moved as well as with the consent of the people living in the territories int o which they are being relocated, such transfers could provide an alternative to war and chronic displacement. If people are coerced to move, or if host communities do not consent to their arrival, population transfer becomes a serious human rights violation.

We are confronted by tough choices. However, if we keep the welfare and wishes of civilian populations at the forefront of our thinking, perhaps we can mitigate the uncivil consequences of the civil wars raging in Europe today.

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