Clarify the UN's Refugee Role


THE war of nerves between the United Nations and Khmer Rouge should not be allowed to overshadow the UN's achievements so far in Cambodia. One of the most significant is the return of more than 160,000 Cambodian refugees from the border camps in Thailand.

Almost half of all the Cambodian refugees in Thailand are now home, after just seven months. This has been a morale-booster for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the high commissioner, has often said, facilitating repatriation is infinitely more rewarding for UNHCR officials than coping with the miserable kind of exodus currently underway from Bosnia.

In spite of this, it has not all been smooth sailing for the UNHCR in Cambodia. The agency was set up in 1951 to protect exiles who flee persecution. Precisely how far it should go in helping former refugees to reintegrate in their own country is far less clear. This has caused confusion, and invited criticism, in Cambodia.

One point needs to be stressed. Reintegration begins before refugees set foot on a bus. The decision to return must be voluntary and the journey home must be safe.

On both counts, Cambodia has surprised even the skeptics. Only one road fatality has occurred in 128 convoys. Most refugees are so desperate to return home that some mothers have even slipped sick children past medical screening in Thailand.

But if UNHCR has been able to satisfy a deep hunger to come home, has it also given the former refugees the means to build a new life? Has repatriation helped to jump-start the reconstruction of Cambodia? Perhaps most pertinent, is this UNHCR's responsibility?

Here the record is less reassuring. There is no doubt that repatriation is helping Cambodia's faltering recovery. Vicious potholes have been filled on returnee routes. The railway has been upgraded. Water wells have been drilled. Several hundred refugees are now employed by the UN Transitional Authority (UNTAC) in Cambodia.

UNHCR has also cut through some formidable UN red tape and used $200,000 of US money to employ Cambodian soldiers and UNTAC supervisors in de-mining of potential housing land for returnees. This program offers a model for future de-mining by UNTAC.

But such achievements, however promising, do not amount to the exciting catalyst that some of us had hoped for. The reason, I am convinced, is UNHCR's dread of being sucked into anything that remotely resembles "development." This has caused reintegration to stutter instead of soar.

Aware of the need to provide refugees with the means to feed themselves, UNHCR offered each family a house and two hectares of agricultural land in Cambodia. But this was promised before anyone really knew whether the land was available. Surveys soon found that most of the land was either in use, mined, or unsuitable for agriculture.

To its credit, UNHCR quickly admitted the error. But it then compounded the problem by leaving the selection of housing land and the provision of wood for houses to Cambodian provincial authorities. Not surprisingly, some sites are isolated from health services and water. It is not unusual to come across truncated walls and misshapen roofs.

Daunted by the technical problems associated with the land offer, UNHCR changed course on May 20 and expanded the options to include a cash grant ($50 per adult, $25 per child). This has proven a mixed blessing. By freeing UNHCR from the need to find land, the cash grant has permitted repatriation to accelerate. It also gives returnees freedom of movement denied to those tied to a plot of land.

On the other hand, many have moved to areas dangerously close to mines and fighting. This limits UNHCR's ability to monitor and protect.

BUT the key question is whether the returnees can turn their cash grant into a source of self-sufficiency that will enable them to buy or grow wood instead of being forced to look for it in woods that are probably mined. This is the challenge of developement that faces all Cambodians, and it raises anew the question of where the UNHCR's role comes to an end in repatriation.

At first sight, the fact that UNHCR is part of UNTAC should help. UNTAC has a rehabilitation component, and donors pledged no less than $880 million for Cambodia's reconstruction at a June 22 conference in Tokyo. This is a colossal sum, but it will be slow to reach the countryside, particularly if the Khmer Rouge continue to obstruct the UN peace plan. Clearly, the immediate task of helping former refugees will continue to rest with UNHCR.

UNHCR's current strategy centers around "quick impact projects" (QIPs). First tested in Nicaragua, these are mini-development projects ($5,000 to $70,000) that benefit local communities as well as returnees. This new formula holds out exciting possibilities, and in Cambodia it has allowed UNHCR to commit $2.3 million to an imaginative range of activities, from road repair to the manufacture of artificial limbs for amputees.

But the first batch of QIPs also suffered from UNHCR's ambivalence toward development, and from the disastrous land pledge. Too many projects were aimed at correcting the kind of error that placed returnee houses in low-lying paddy fields without concrete supports against floods. There was very little input from returnees or locals and almost no assessment of the environmental impact of QIPs.

Is it possible to draw a firm line between repatriation and long-term development? Difficult, yes; impossible, no. UNHCR and donors must adopt a clear policy, instead of flirting with the principle of reintegration and backing off from the practice.

This may call for more resources, technical expertise, and even a formal expansion of UNHCR's mandate. Given what's at stake - the role of repatriation in building peace - that would be a small price to pay.

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