Caring for the Uprooted: Do New Refugee Policies Threaten Rights?

IN a post-cold-war world riven by ethnic and civil conflict, one of every 125 people has been forced to flee his or her home, says Marie Okabe of the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

At the end of 1993, between 40 million and 50 million people were uprooted, one-third having crossed borders to escape war or persecution. Others, estimated at more than 25 million, were ``displaced'' - seeking safety elsewhere within their own countries. The private US Committee for Refugees points out in its 1994 World Refugee Survey, released Tuesday, that last year 1.5 million refugees returned home, but the number of the displaced is burgeoning. More than a million were newly uprooted in Angola, and hundreds of thousands in Zaire, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Azerbaijan, and Liberia.

But along with family anguish and logistical challenges faced by aid agencies, some see another danger: The refugee protection system in place since World War II may be breaking down, with Western governments beginning to restrict basic refugee rights, such as the ``right to leave'' enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The survey discusses new policies in Europe and the United States that Committee analyst Bill Frelick terms ``a major shift in the world's approach,'' a ``stay-at-home strategy'' that seeks to keep people from fleeing despite their desires and fear of violence. US policy on Haitian refugees and Europe's recent institution of visa requirements and ``temporary status'' for Bosnians succeed in reducing refugees, but protect potential host countries, not people in danger, he said.

The Clinton administration has said its intent regarding Haiti is to focus on root causes of refugee flight. Mr. Frelick says this fails to recognize that refugee policy is designed as an interim measure - giving people specific rights until a political settlement can be reached.

A US State Department official disagrees that the system is breaking down, but there is ``no question that the preferred solution is that more effort be given to dealing with the conflict behind the refugee flow.'' She adds, ``If you can't stop them leaving, provide the best protection you can. We did that in the case of the Kurds in Iraq.''

Frelick worries the US sees the Kurdish policy in northern Iraq as a precedent; he says it is a unique instance in which a safe haven has been substituted for asylum in nearby nations, with the West providing a security umbrella.

But Jose Maria Mendiluce, former UNHCR special envoy to Bosnia, says in the survey that Bosnia has never seen a ``commitment of the international community comparable to the commitment of the Allied Forces in [Iraq].'' Instead, aid providers have come under siege along with local people. While UNHCR has no mandate to help the displaced, it does so in Bosnia and in war zones of the former Soviet Union and Africa, Ms. Okabe says. The US contributes most to global aid agencies, but is only eighth in per capita contributions, the survey says.

For refugee advocates, the key is US policy leadership. ``For the US to say, `We don't have the absorptive capacity,' sends very disturbing signals to poorer countries around the world,'' Frelick says.

The US continues to take in large numbers of refugees (119,000 in 1993) the State Department official says, but the increasing pressure contributes ``in many countries to a feeling of immigrant fatigue.'' The problem, she adds, is that the public does not always differentiate between refugees and illegal aliens, and worries about tax dollars.

Refugee advocates and officials agree that ideological issues of the cold war made it easier for Westerners to support those fleeing communism. The question now, some say, is whether the sense of common humanity that contributed to creation of the refugee system decades ago can provide the impetus for policies that assist those in need without depriving them of basic rights.

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