BANGLADESHIS made homeless by the forces of nature and the hundreds of thousands of Kurds still encamped in Turkey, Iran, and northern Iraq are only the latest examples of a world refugee problem now worse than at any time since the end of World War II. Currently, there are some 15 million to 17 million refugees around the globe, according to United Nations estimates - double the number of 10 years ago. Many are in flight from floods or famine, but the majority are refugees from bitter civil conflicts. A disturbing number have been separated from their homes for years.
Traditionally, the world's humanitarian response to refugees has focused on food, shelter, and asylum. But as civil wars drag on year after year, refugee programs may need to take a broader approach to the problem, emphasizing conflict resolution and early return of refugees to their homes.
``Whether we can work on those solutions successfully will determine whether we're going to be sitting here five years from now with 15 or 16 million refugees, or whether we'll see a sharp downturn,'' says Princeton Lyman, refuge programs director of the United States Department of State.
The Kurdish situation may provide a key precedent for future efforts, establishing the right of the UN and the international community to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state when the plight of refugees demands it.
Roger Winter, director of the US Committee for Refugees, thinks such a right should be formally codified in international law.
``Any new world order worth its salt will have this,'' he says.
Today, refugees are a problem from the jungles of Central America to the deserts of the Middle East. The largest single group of refugees are Afghans. The war in Afghanistan has displaced an estimated 5 million people, many of whom have lived in Iran and Pakistan for over a decade.
Africa is perhaps the continent with the most widespread refugee problems. There are an estimated 5 million African refugees, the vast majority fleeing civil wars and insurgencies in Liberia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Mozambique, among other countries.
Poverty and poor harvests make the position of African refugees precarious. The UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said May 20 that a breakdown in the food pipeline in Ethiopia had put more than 1.2 million refugees at risk.
In Africa, says Ambassador Lyman, ``logistics are so difficult, the distances are so great, and the infrastructure is so poor.''
The world community has long depended heavily on the UN for humanitarian response to refugee problems. US refugee policy has consisted largely of funneling aid to programs of the UNHCR.
By sending in troops to provide emergency assistance in northern Iraq and Bangladesh, the US has raised some questions as to whether in future crises it will send in the Marines rather than sending money to the UN.
Lyman says that just wouldn't be cost-effective.``What you really want is the international agencies of the world to have a response capacity that's better than they have in this case,'' he says.
The UNHCR has been criticized for being slow off the mark in recent refugee situations. Lyman says he thinks the agency should develop more of a ``surge'' capacity to deal with emergencies and concentrate more on reaching out to the nongovernmental organizations, such as Medicine Without Frontiers, that are often among the first to show up in a crisis.
Money is a major problem for the UNHCR, however. While the number of refugees has doubled in the last 10 years, the UNHCR budget has risen only slightly. About 4 percent of the UNHCR's money comes from the UN itself; the rest is raised by passing the cup among governments when an emergency occurs.
``They can't field a program of any magnitude until money starts to come in,'' points out Roger Winter of the US Committee for Refugees.
The Iraqi situation could prove a turning point for the UNHCR and the world's approach to refugees in general, feel refugee experts. For one thing, there is the growing realization that helping settle civil conflicts might be the most cost-effective way to help refugees go home. Keeping the Kurds in Turkey is no solution; instead, a way must be found to make them feel safe in Iraq.
US officials and others also see signs of hope in Cambodia and Afghanistan, where the end of the Cold War might make possible political solutions that would help millions of refugees. For another thing, UN intervention inside a sovereign state such as Iraq could set a precedent. In the past the UN was reluctant to deal with displaced persons who had not crossed international boundaries, feeling it would violate national sovereignty.
``We didn't used to work very much with governments of [refugee] origin,'' says a UNHCR spokesman. ``Now we're dealing with them more and more.''
The UNHCR recently helped broker a deal between Albania and Italy, for example, that would allow asylum in Italy for Albanian political refugees while encouraging Albanians wishing to leave for economic reasons to stay put.