Refugees: Punishing the Victims
1992'S TROUBLING LEGACY
HAITI, Bosnia, Somalia. This year, bands of thugs with guns, forfeiting any claim to legitimacy, brutalized unarmed civilians and denied food to the hungry, precipitating significant refugee flows. Although we appear, at long last, to have turned the corner in Somalia, the world community has, so far, seemed dumbstruck, unable to stop the gangsters and bigots who block humanitarian assistance to the innocent and persecute the weak, or to provide refuge to their victims.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Lip service has been paid for years now to the need to address "root causes" of refugee flows. Prevent the cause of a person becoming a refugee, goes the argument, create conditions of peace, security, and respect for human rights in home countries and avoid forcing other countries that didn't cause the problem to bear the burden of caring for refugees.
But it is much easier to prevent the flow of refugees than to prevent the abuses that cause them to flee. The United States government interdicts and returns Haitian boat people (even while it pursues policies on the political front that exacerbate the fear and hunger that cause them to flee), then rationalizes its policy by saying it is intended to prevent drownings at sea.
Muslims attempting to flee Bosnia are pushed back at the Croatian border, while the international community does nothing about the genocide being committed against them.
Yet our government and others make only token offers of refuge, saying that to admit more refugees would only contribute to "ethnic cleansing." Similarly, the world ignored Somalia's disintegration into chaotic gang warfare, and waited pointlessly, for months, for permission from a nonexistent government in Somalia to invite it to intervene, while people starved and searched in vain for safety.
With the apparent belated exception of Somalia, the response of the international community to these tragedies has been to pursue policies that give the appearance of moral condemnation of repression, but which, in fact, tend to further punish the victims rather than the perpetrators. This is because outside governments have found it easier, cheaper, and more in their immediate interests to deal with the refugees as the problem, rather than the massive human rights violations that cause them to flee. Gov ernments, after all, are motivated less by humanitarian concern than by their interests in maintaining the security and strength of their own state, including protecting their borders from encroachment, whether military or migratory.
This paradigm was at the heart of United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 during the Gulf war, which led to the creation of a "safe haven zone" in northern Iraq. It was framed not as a condemnation of Saddam Hussein's repression of the Kurds, but rather as a response to the "massive flow of refugees towards and across international frontiers." Its focus was on the instability created by the Kurds themselves - that their flight across borders would "threaten international peace and security in the region." In short, the refugees were defined as the problem.
The Kurdish refugees were prevented from seeking asylum in Turkey. Although the safe haven zone has held up for a year, Saddam continues to cast a shadow over the area and the root cause of the exodus has not been addressed.