World's Refugees Told: `Go Back Home,' as West Cringes Before a Flood

The political will to intervene to halt massive refugee crises has waned right when refugees are flooding the world. And the Western countries that traditionally have accepted refugees now face enormous pressures to close their borders.

THE Rwandan refugee exodus - latest in a massive wave of 8 million refugees since the end of the cold war - comes as the United States and other Western nations are shifting their refugee policies drastically - toward containment and away from resettlement in the West.

Now those seeking asylum are urged to return home or stay in their own region in camps, sometimes controlled by corrupt or self-serving leaders such as the Hutu militias, which allegedly murdered 500,000 Tutsis.

As the flood of refugees has swollen, containment has become the major goal, refugee analysts says. Bosnians are urged to stay in-country despite the war. Haitian boat people have been intercepted and returned by the US Coast Guard. Pakistan has stopped accepting Afghan refugees. The United Nations is trying to get Rwandans to return home.

Additionally, the appetite for intervention has waned, complicating the resettlement question. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was a belief that multilateral forces would intervene to protect people at risk, thereby preventing refugee crises. When a million Kurds threatened to destabilize Turkey, a multinational force created a safe haven inside Iraq for their return.

In Rwanda, however, ``the international community let it get out of hand,'' says Rene van Rooyen, Washington representative of the UN High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

To provide security and food to keep refugees from spreading far and wide - and possibly destabilizing other countries - the trend now is to allow the return of ``spheres of influence'' - regional powers doing peacekeeping in their areas, analysts say. The UN has authorized the French to intervene in Rwanda, the Russians to go to the Caucasus, and the US into Haiti.

One year ago President Clinton supported the creation of a 25,000-man international force to intervene in situations like Rwanda's. But the killing of 28 US soldiers during a peacekeeping operation in Somalia last October led Clinton to reverse his support for third world intervention. The same day that television viewers saw an American corpse dragged through Mogadishu's streets, Mr. Clinton backed down and withdrew a warship with 200 military engineers from Port-au-Prince rather than risk injuries from a few hundred rioting thugs loyal to the military regime there.

In May, Clinton signed a presidential directive saying the US will not support or join a multinational force unless it's in US interests, minimizes risk to US troops, and has domestic and Congressional support.

Some refugee policy analysts believe this is nothing less than a complete about-face - instead of backing a strong UN rapid deployment force, for example, the US voted against the use of UN troops in Burundi and Georgia. Meanwhile the countries that traditionally accepted refugees and/or still pay for refugee programs - the US, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan - face enormous pressures at home to close their borders and reduce budgets.

This is partly driven by ``compassion fatigue'' from too much media reporting on too many emergencies; by domestic economic and social concerns; and by overwhelming requests for asylum, including Brazilians fearing anti-gay bias, Nigerians fearing female circumcision, and Chinese fearing forced birth control.

The move away from resettlement, a senior US official says, has resulted in the number of internally displaced persons rising even faster than refugees, to about 25 million. And instead of refugees being able to go home to restart their lives in peace, the world refugee population has shot up since 1989 from 15 to 23 million, the UNHCR says.

Mr. van Rooyen says: ``A new system has not been thought out'' to deal with the chaotic refugee situations since the end of the cold war.

It shouldn't have gotten so bad, experts say. The wane of communism should have lessened some of the cold-war conflicts that had spawned many refugees: Vietnam, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola.

Experts such as Anthony Lake, now Clinton's national security adviser, preached an aggressive brand of humanitarianism: Refugees would be repatriated, lured by development assistance tied to human rights and democracy. The former soldiers and guerrillas would remove land mines, start small businesses, and prosper. In Cambodia and Mozambique, this strategy appears to be working. But in Angola and Afghanistan, renewed fighting has aborted return and reconstruction, and new fighting in Rwanda has done the same.

UNHCR began as a framework for legal protection for survivors of Hitler's concentration camps and escapees from Stalin's Iron Curtain. Now it has become a massive soup kitchen feeding tens of millions, some of them in the midst of warfare.

This year, the UNHCR budget - at $1.4 billion - is more than double what it was in 1989 and for the first time surpassed that of the UN Development Program. Money to fight poverty and its conflicts is diverted. Some of the UNHCR camps have become magnets for the hungry and oppressed, inadvertently helping groups such as the Serbs to achieve ``ethnic cleansing.''

The senior US official says the Rwandan refugees, some still moving into camps in Zaire this week, will likely ``be there for a long time - it's unrealistic to expect them to go home in six months or a year.'' And refugee leaders will likely manipulate aid to enhance their power, and much killing could go on in the camps.

In Rwanda, ``One part of a civilization rose up against the other,'' the US official says. ``This is a humanitarian disaster that I'm not sure our mechanisms are able to cope with.

``Some people will say you can't stop people from killing each other,'' the official says. ``I'm not prepared to accept that if we're going to have an effective international community. But I don't have the mechanism to enforce that responsibility.''

INDEED, despite the international convention banning genocide and requiring the nations of the world to intervene and stop it, some say little has changed since the Nazi Holocaust.

Says Lionel Rosenblatt of the private advocacy group Refugees International: ``There's not been much progress since then. In Cambodia [the Khmer Rouge killed a million people and] there was no action. In Rwanda, a few hundred troops could have made a difference.

``There is not a lot of willingness to get involved in life-threatening situations,'' says Mr. Rosenblatt, who recently returned from Rwanda. He decries what he calls ``the Colin Powell doctrine'' - find the earliest possible exit from situations where US troops are deployed.

``I'd like to see a French Foreign Legion model, composed of volunteers - not draftees - quickly deployable and trained with other armies,'' Rosenblatt says. ``To make the world more peaceful you have to be more aggressive.''

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