The Flow of Refugees and the World's Response

IN this Christmas season, the world is witnessing a contradiction in attitudes toward the victims of war and oppression. Nations once hospitable to refugees are closing their doors. Yet, in an unprecedented way these same nations are deploying resources and, in some cases, military forces, for humanitarian purposes far from their borders.

The contradiction may be more apparent than real, for the only way ultimately to reduce the flow is to eliminate the privations and pressures that cause people to flee.

The turmoil that began with the upheavals in Eastern Europe five years ago, and has continued in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the former Yugoslavia, has created a refugee movement comparable to that after World War II. People are fleeing from societies and economies struggling through harsh transitions from communist rule as well as from ethnic animosities suddenly rising to the surface.

Others come from poorer third-world countries. Statistics provided by the Inter-governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America, and Australia show that on the basis of available data, 660,000 asylum applications were filed in participating states in 1991. Of these 545,000 were in Western Europe, slightly more than 100,000 in North America (primarily the US and Canada) and 16,000 in Australia.

They came not only from Europe, but from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. The Consultation secretariat reports that "... the number of asylum seekers in participating states was more than six times bigger in 1991 than in 1983, three times bigger than in 1985, and that it already has doubled since 1988. As regards to European participating states, the inflow of asylum-seekers was in 1991 twice as big as the regular admission of foreign labor in these states in the same year."

The countries facing the largest inflow are, naturally, those adjacent to the troubled regions. Germany, for example, had 256,100 asylum seekers in 1991; on a per capita basis, this would be the equivalent of nearly a million seeking entry into the US. In actuality, the US figure for 1991 was only 70,000.

As these numbers increase - and, perhaps, because they increase - the traditional asylum countries are closing their doors. Germany is under internal pressure to revise its asylum laws in the face of angry protests against the foreign invasion. Public opinion in Britain and France is less hospitable to immigration. The Catholic church in Italy, troubled by the number of destitute migrants, is calling for quotas. Manifestations against newcomers are reported in the US and Canada as well.

In the midst of this otherwise dark picture, relief workers and soldiers from Europe and North America, under the United Nations banner and with broad public support, are risking their lives to bring humanitarian relief to Bosnia, Somalia, and other regions in turmoil. Perhaps the world does have a conscience.

Perhaps, also, a practical reason can be cited for this new determination to assist the victims in these trouble spots. Surveys by refugee groups reveal that a large number of those fleeing their homelands would prefer to remain or return if conditions could be improved. On this basis, a global effort is justified to create conditions that permit people to remain in their traditional homes.

Critics of the use of the military in Somalia and Bosnia, especially in the US, say no national interest is involved in these deployments. In the world today, however, that view represents a narrow definition of national interest. It is very much in the national interest of the major industrial nations to create conditions under which the unhappy human migration that marks today's scene can be curbed.

The alternative is to face a human tide that severely tests the fabric and stability of nations. Creating conditions for humanitarian relief is but a small step in the process. Stable governmental structures must be formed and peaceful relationships established among age-old antagonists.

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