Refugees: Punishing the Victims


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.

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.

The international community is, finally, poised to intervene in Somalia not only to "use all necessary means to establish ... a secure environment for humanitarian relief" but, according to the Dec. 3 Security Council Resolution, to "restore peace, stability and law and order with a view to facilitating ... a political settlement." But why did it take so long? How many Haitians or Bosnians need to die to spur a concerted international intervention on their behalf?

The reluctance to intervene militarily is healthy and warranted. It is easy to see the dangers of the US, as the unchallenged remaining superpower, being cast in the role of world policeman and using the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention to mask less-exalted goals. But there is also the danger of a siege mentality developing among the rich democracies. There appears to be a willingness to watch passively as the rest of the world unravels in bloody rivalries, taking action only to prevent the victims from spilling onto our shores.

The trend in US, Canadian, and European refugee policy during the past year suggests that "managing" or preventing refugee flows has surpassed both the goal of stopping the violence that forces people to flee and of assisting and protecting those who have managed to escape. Canada and the US have drafted a memorandum of understanding that will permit either country to block access to asylum seekers who travel through the other country. The European Community has signed, but not yet ratified, the Dublin C onvention, which will allow European states also to turn away asylum seekers at the border.

The US, Canada, and other liberal democracies will be able to point to their asylum procedures as being fair and lawful, but they will be so on paper only. Access to these systems will be blocked to all but a select few. Iranians and Iraqis will be sent back to Turkey; Central Americans to Mexico; and Bosnians to Croatia. What happens to them at that point is anyone's guess.

By closing their own doors to asylum seekers and condoning push-backs by countries bordering refugee-producing states, our government and its closest allies are on the verge of sacrificing the most fundamental principle of refugee protection - the right of refugees to flee their own countries and seek asylum from persecution in other countries, and not to be returned into the hands of their persecutors.

US actions toward Haitian refugees and our inaction toward Bosnians convey a message to other governments on how to handle future refugee emergencies: Keep them out. Push them back. Create fig leaves such as "safe haven zones" in their home countries, even if the tyrants that persecuted them are still in power. Establish asylum systems that look good on paper, but in reality create new obstacles for refugees fleeing for their lives. If the situation threatens to get completely out of hand, provide enough

"humanitarian assistance" and the resettlement of a token number of refugees to keep the critics quiet and salve consciences, but not enough to seriously address the brutality that threatens lives.

Western governments, acting through the UN or with regional bodies, such as the OAS and OAU, have the capability, if not the will, to confront aggression and persecution conducted by illegitimate forces against civilian populations. If the world community wants Bosnians or Haitians to stay home, it can act decisively to make it possible for them to remain there in safety and dignity. Let's hope Somalia, at long last, will prove a model for such intervention. But if outside governments are not willing to go that far, they are morally required, at a minimum, to provide refuge for those seeking to escape.

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