How a `Piece of Paper' Breached the Wall

NO bomb was dropped. No bullet fired. But March 19, 1989, now looms as a watershed date in the history of refugee movement. A piece of paper was signed. That paper, the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, was signed by Hungary, the first East-bloc state to do so. That action, little noticed at the time, set in motion the events that have now led to the crumbling of the wall dividing East and West.

Americans tend to be cynical about the value of international conventions. It took the United States 40 years to see fit to ratify the Genocide Convention. Most of the other human rights conventions still await ratification. International law as an avenue for addressing human rights violations is looked at with doubt, if not derision.

Hungary's action, however, brings closer the realization of an internationally agreed upon standard for the treatment of people once they have fled their homelands.

The principle - from Article 33 of the convention - doesn't even have a corresponding word in English yet. It is called non-refoulement. The term means that no refugee should be returned against his will to a place where his life or freedom would be threatened. By acceding to the convention, Hungary signaled to its East European neighbors that once their citizens crossed into Hungary they would have certain rights. They could no longer be returned arbitrarily if they claimed a fear of persecution.

Hungary's signing of the convention was prompted initially by a concern for ethnic Hungarians in Romania. As victims of the Ceausescu regime's campaign to forcibly assimilate Hungarian and other ethnic minorities into one ideal Romanian ``new man,'' more than 10,000 ethnic Hungarians fled across the Romanian border into Hungary in 1988.

But the principle applied equally to Germans. And that principle became a tangible reality for would-be East German refugees when, in May, they witnessed the dismantling of the barbed wire fences separating Hungary from Austria. Like an amputee who still ``feels'' the sensation of a missing limb, it took a couple of months for East Germans to realize that the physical barrier was gone, that they really could walk across a border to the West.

But it was not yet legal for them to do so. Still, as a result of Hungary's accession to the convention, Germans began formally requesting asylum. Their numbers quickly grew into the thousands. In consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Hungary began to set up refugee camps. They accepted the obligation not to return refugees against their will to their home country. Finally, on Sept. 10, Hungary announced that all East Germans would be permitted to leave Hungary legally and resettle in West Germany. The floodgates in the divide between East and West were opened.

The stances of three European states on the front line of this dramatic movement have been ethnically motivated - West Germany's open door for ethnic Germans from East Germany, Poland, the USSR, and Romania; Hungary's willingness to take ethnic Hungarians from Romania; and Turkey's welcome for ethnic Turks from Bulgaria. Responding to refugees of the same ethnic background is popular, so long as the numbers are relatively small.

But the true test of the principle of protecting people from refoulement comes when refugees are not of the same ethnic background as the host country. Hungary's reception of ethnic Romanians from Romania was far less hospitable than for ethnic Hungarians. Border guards are reported to have pushed the Romanians back.

For the past several years, Western European states have been moving steadily toward the common denominator of the most restrictivist countries among them. This trend has been felt in Canada, which began a more rigid asylum-determination system this year, and even in the United States, which earlier this year instituted accelerated adjudication procedures and increased the practice of detaining asylum seekers.

Two movements are occurring simultaneously. There is a historic east-to-west movement that is riveting public attention. But there is also a south-to-north movement coming from the troubled lands of Central America and the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Western Europe and North America are having to cope simultaneously with these two trends.

At a certain point, the governments of the West, including that of the US, are going to have to take a second look at how well they're adhering to the principle of non-refoulement. If the principle of non-refoulement is to have meaning, it needs to be applied to all refugees.

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