Refugees Numbers Rising, But World Hospitality Falls

US foreign assistance, immigration quotas are expected to shrink

SO far, it has not been a good year for the world's huge population of displaced people.

Even though there are vastly more of them, governments around the world are erecting higher barriers to their entry, according to two reports issued during the past week.

And if the recommendations offered recently by a congressional panel are adopted, the United States will be the latest wealthy nation to trim its immigration quotas.

Meanwhile, US foreign aid, which is aimed at helping create jobs, lower population growth, and teach farming skills in poor nations - all part of the effort to reduce the incentive to migrate, development experts say - is on the verge of taking its biggest hit in Congress in decades.

"For those who are concerned about refugees and human rights, it's hard to imagine a more depressing time," says Roger Winter of the US Committee for Refugees (USCR) based here.

In all, about 125 million people live outside their native countries, according a report released yesterday by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

By Worldwatch's count, 23 million of them - four million more than last year - are actual refugees, defined by the UN as people unwilling or unable to return home because of a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.

The total also includes 100 million legal migrants and 10 million illegal migrants who have left home in search of jobs. Tens of millions more - including 100 million in China alone - are on the move inside their own borders, "floating" in search of jobs.

Typically, it is war or joblessness that prompts such vast population movements. But, as Worldwatch notes, problems like land and water scarcity, desertification, and rapid population growth underlie both.

"The immediate cause of departure may be war or poverty, but war and poverty themselves invariably grow out of years of mounting pressures that finally force people from their homes," says the 49-page report, "The Hour of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants."

But as the number of refugees swells, hospitality for them is cooling, according to the 1995 World Refugee Report, by the USCR. Nations that have before welcomed refugees are closing their doors or sending refugees home before it is safe.

Higher barriers are going up in, among other places, Tanzania, which has closed its border to Burundian or Rwandan refugees. Pakistan and Iran have shut out those fleeing the fighting between rival Mujahedin factions in Afghanistan. And five Asian nations are closing the doors to new Vietnamese boat people.

IN the US, meanwhile, President Clinton last week warmly endorsed the recommendations of a federal panel that calls for paring back the number of legal immigrants allowed into the US. In a report issued Wednesday, the Commission on Immigration Reform urged that immigration quotas be lowered to two-thirds their present level over the next several years, from 830,000 to 550,000.

The report reflects a widespread public feeling that there are limits to the ability of the US to absorb newcomers. New guidelines recommended in the report would favor nuclear families and restrict more distant relatives of immigrants already in the US.

On Thursday, Congress came a step closer to making deep cuts in aid to developing nations where pressures to emigrate are the strongest. Foreign affairs legislation voted in the House would preserve US assistance to Israel, Egypt, and some former Soviet bloc states but significantly reduce aid to Africa.

Also cut will be US contributions to international development agencies, like the UN Development Program, and international lending institutions that loan to poor nations.

Most Republican and many Democratic lawmakers say aid needs to be cut to balance the budget. But the Worldwatch report suggests that such cuts are penny wise and pound foolish, since the cost of providing for refugees and containing the movement of illegal migrants is far greater than preventive measures that could enable refugees and migrants to stay home.

"The current pattern of waiting until emergencies unfold and then trying to help the victims is actually a source of despair, as the need for assistance always seems to overwhelm the supply of help," the report says.

Loans for small-scale businesses in Bangladesh, small factories that create jobs in rural Thailand, and government backing for small-scale agriculture in Eritrea are all examples of local projects that have helped keep people who might otherwise have migrated anchored to the land.

"By addressing some of the underlying pressures, some conflicts can be mitigated and refugees enabled to stay home," says Hal Kane, author of the Worldwatch report.

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