Changing the Way We Think of Refugees

A growing number of victims of human rights abuses have nowhere to go, no refuge from their persecutors

Was ever a ship more aptly named than the Bulk Challenge, the freighter brimming with Liberian refugees turned away by one West African government after another last year? What better metaphor for the world's uncaring attitude toward refugees?

The bulk challenge today is to the principle of asylum itself: Will countries receiving refugees provide them with an acceptable level of protection from violence and persecution? Will refugees be able to flee their countries at all?

A recently released World Refugee Survey says the worldwide total of refugees and asylum seekers is at the lowest level since 1988, estimated at 14.5 million people. Although some of the decrease is due to improvement in the human rights conditions that cause refugees to flee - and for this we are grateful - the decline in refugee numbers also indicates that the availability of asylum is becoming more restricted, and more refugees are being coerced to repatriate.

The group representing the largest reduction in the worldwide refugee total in 1996 was the 1.3 million Rwandans who returned home. Yet, most returned because their fears for their safety in the countries of purported asylum outweighed their fears of returning home.

The Rwandan refugee "endgame" cannot be understood in isolation. For three years, local officials and the international community failed to provide the quality of asylum required in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Tanzania, and Burundi. They neglected to eradicate criminals from the camps, allowing refugees to be used as pawns. Now we must ask whether the basic terms for understanding the refugee experience need to be redefined.

Refugees - or hostages?

Did the word "refugee" even apply to most of the people in the Zairean camps? Would they more accurately have been called hostages? If they were not, in fact, refugees - if they were captives held in the refugee camps against their will and were in greater danger inside the camps than they would have been at home - did the traditional principles of refugee protection apply to them?

Perhaps the Rwandan refugee experience is sui generis, an anomaly that stands alone and teaches us nothing. It may, rather, be a portent of a future in which the lines distinguishing refugees and nonrefugees become increasingly blurred and in which both the character of asylum and the nature of repatriation become ever more difficult to fathom. We ignore its lessons at great peril.

The principal lesson is to distinguish real asylum from pseudo-asylum. If the vulnerable are held captive or otherwise brutalized, then the sine qua non of an international assistance and protection regime is to separate the captives from the captors. In the case of Rwandans in Zaire, the West in particular knew the evil that was being perpetrated in the name of humanitarianism, but it chose not to deal with it.

We cannot go through the motions of pretending that a situation is a case of asylum simply because groups of people have crossed a border and need assistance. The history and culture of the international refugee regime hold as sacrosanct the principle of "nonrefoulement" - that refugees cannot be returned to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

But in Zaire, right under the noses of the international humanitarians, these people's lives and freedom were being threatened - and worse. We have focused so much of our energy on stopping involuntary returns that we have failed to appreciate that abuses to life and freedom of the same or greater magnitude were occurring in supposed asylum, in the absence of return. In such cases, to concentrate our energies on opposing forced return is to miss the fundamental human right that is being violated.

To say, however, that forced repatriation from a place like Zaire is "good" treads dangerously close to giving carte blanche to governments reluctant to provide asylum. If the Zaire example is interpreted to mean that bad asylum is worse than, or equivalent to, no asylum, then governments will prefer forcing refugees back rather than being saddled with caring for them.

It is incumbent upon the international humanitarian community - particularly in the nongovernmental sector - to pay greater heed to the quality of asylum, to hold governments accountable for their failure to provide real asylum, and to confront threats to life and freedom wherever they are encountered. The failure of a state to provide adequate asylum does not absolve it of its responsibility to prevent the forced return of refugees.

Although erosion of the principle of asylum is most evident today in Africa, it didn't start there. It started in Europe and the United States. Almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prosperous, Western democracies realized that the newfound freedom to leave once-closed countries raised the specter that millions would seek to enter the Western countries.

At that point, Berlin walls were reconstructed by potential host countries, trying to keep others out. The walls were not of cement, but, rather, of paper - legal barriers - including visa restrictions and fast-track procedures designed to keep out the unwanted. One example is the new US asylum law that went into effect in April, which creates a summary removal procedure for persons arriving in the US with false documents - the only way many asylum seekers can flee repressive governments.

Mistreatment of asylum seekers by the US and Europe doesn't absolve the likes of Cte d'Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, and Sierra Leone from responsibility for pushing away refugees from their borders (as they did last year), or of Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire for allowing refugees on their soil to be terrorized and abused. It does mean that expectations among governments are lowered when the traditional leaders in setting standards of due process and generosity lower their own standards.

A new common enemy

When frontline states openly abuse the rights of refugees, few other governments are able to call them to account. Realizing how hopelessly hollow and hypocritical such criticisms would sound, most have chosen silence.

Consequently, the international community has begun to acquiesce in a new solidarity. Not a solidarity based on the principle of international burden-sharing and equity, but one that takes on more the character of an alliance against a common enemy: refugees and asylum seekers. The decline in the number of refugees counted by the World Refugee Survey surely reflects a large number of victims of human rights abuse who have no place to go, no refuge from their prosecutors.

The recent erosion of asylum in Africa also is due to the unwillingness of the West to engage in real international burden-sharing and to accept a share of responsibility for upholding human rights principles wherever they are being violated. Token humanitarian assistance too often substitutes for meaningful intervention to provide essential security for the defenseless.

Countries such as Tanzania and Zaire, who by happenstance of geography find themselves facing a major refugee influx, are essentially left to fend for themselves. The West, with the resources and firepower to keep the thugs at bay, remains on the sidelines. The consequences for refugees are as predictable as they are tragic.

* Bill Frelick is a senior policy analyst at the US Committee for Refugees in Washington.

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