Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


The land lies ravaged and parched. Parties of refugee women who have fled the fighting and famine in Ethiopia have to wander up to 12 miles from the nearest sprawling camp to gather firewood. Yet even with fuel, there is little to cook. Despite international aid, refugees here in northwestern Somalia barely receive half their recommended food needs.m

"Only 20 years ago this region used to teem with wildlife and be green with trees," observes a Somali relief official. "But we have been badly hit by drought and the refugees cut anything they can find."m

About these ads

Electronic engineer Virgilio Bareiro spent the last 16 years in a Paraguayan prison at the mercy of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's right- wing dictatorship. Father of five children, Bareiro was accused of being an agent for Moscow.m

Neither officially charged nor even brought to trial, he was tortured and for years never allowed to leave his tiny cell. Through the efforts of human-rights organizations, he was finally released and granted asylum in West Germany as a political refugee.m

The Afghan villagers cross the rugged snow-swept mountains into Pakistan clutching blankets, chickens, kettles, and bundles of treasured family belongings. While the women and children, some staggering from cold and exhaustion, struggle down the steep winding path, the men scan the sky for Soviet helicopter gunships.m

The Afghans may have left their country, but they know that the international frontier has in the past not prevented communist forces from attacking tribesmen fleeing toward the refugee camps in the plains below.m

"It is the refugee who reveals to us the defective society in which we live. He is a kind of mirror through whose suffering we can see the injustices, the oppression, and maltreatment of the powerless by the powerful."

Melaku Kifle, refugee secretary of the All African Council of Churches, expresses a feeling widespread among those who work with the world's homeless: a quiet indignation against the forces that uproot millions of human beings and set them helplessly adrift.

Certainly, seen through the "mirror" of the refugee multitudes, the globe has much to learn about living together in tolerance and peace. Persecution and war , intolerance and bloodshed, deprivation and famine have generated a mighty tide of refugees.

About these ads

According to the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here in Geneva, there are more than 10 million officially recognized refugees in the world today. But international relief workers and other experts suggest that the figure may be as high as 16 million people. And UNHCR sources reckon that the global toll now is rising at a rate of more than 2,000 asylum seekers per day.

Amid this welter of statistics, two facts or trends stand out.

One is that, compared with the post-World War II period, today's "huddled masses" are concentrated most heavily in the third world.

"The character of the world refugee problem has changed dramatically over the years," comments Dale de Haan, deputy UNHCR commissioner. "The focus has turned to the third world where we are getting waves of fleeing populations rather than individuals."

The second salient fact is that more than half the world's refugees are fleeing communism or governments directly or indirectly supported by the Soviet Union and its satellites. The most striking examples can be found in Indo-China , Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cuba, Angola, and Eastern Europe.

"We are now suffering from a conflict of ideologies," warns a senior American Red Cross official. "If only we had to deal with petty dictatorships, such problems would be a lot easier to solve. Unfortunately, we must now cope with a massive exodus of human beings fleeing an ideology with which they disagree."

To make matters worse, refugees have become a highly politicized and persistent feature of modern society. Not only do they dangerously destabilize certain regions of the world such as Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa with their vast numbers, but they are manipulated by governments as wretched pawns in their Machiavellian political intrigues.

One way or another, practically every nation on earth is affected by the refugee problem.

"Today, as a consequence, few countries can be confident that they will not suddenly face refugee problems originating outside their borders," US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Organization of American States last July. "And no one country, however well intentioned, can deal by itself with large-scale flights of refugees. As this problem transcends national boundaries so should the solution transcend single nations."

Basically, from the UN viewpoint, a refugee is a person who has been forced to flee his homeland for "fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion , nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." This also includes individuals running away from war, civil disturbances, and violence.

In the Horn of Africa, they flee most from war and thought. In South Africa, repression by the white apartheid regime has caused thousands to seek asylum in neighboring black-ruled countries. Similarly, black dictatorships elsewhere on the African continent have prompted many to leave by ruthlessly jailing or murdering dissidents.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, right-wing governments have imprisoned, tortured, or assassinated primarily left-wing opponents. Thousands have been driven into exile. Deplorable economic and political conditions in Haiti have incited increasing numbers of "boat people" to seek refuge and work in the United States.

And all across the globe, the turmoil resulting from often rigid application of communist or socialist ideologies has swept people from their homes and across borders into already teeming holding camps. So vast are these population displacements that many West European and American diplomats suspect that in some cases they may be being used as political weapons, placing financial and social burdens on the West and its allies, and destabilizing whole regions.

Soviet officials have been unwilling to comment on the world refugee situation. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, argue that their policies toward fleeing Hoa (ethnic Chinese) or Vietnamese boat people are neither racist nor politically calculated to disrupt Southeast Asia.

"You must understand our predicament," notes one Vietnamese source in Paris. "With the Chinese pressuring us from the north, what do you expect the Hoa to do? A certain number are obviously part of a 'fifth column." The rest we consider Vietnamese citizens, but they cannot be expected to fight against the Chinese in the event of another attack, nor are they that keen to live under the domination of Peking. It is therefore better that they leave."

Another shift in the refugee scene troubles relief workers. In the past, relief officials could usually consider refugee exoduses to be short-term problems. Today that, too, is changing.

1980 REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS Africa 4,045,200 Asia 7,292,500 Europe 229,750 Latin America 1,085,300 Middle East 3,312,500 WORLDWIDE TOTAL 15,965,250 Source: US Committee for Refugees

The UNHCR, for example, had hoped quietly to go out of business once the remaining refugee camps in Europe had bee cleared after World War II. Historical as well as current indications suggest, however, that increasing numbers of refugees will become semipermanent, if not permanent, exiles unless satisfactory political solutions can be worked out.

"Emergency periods now seem to be getting longer and solutions more difficult to find," notes Donald Sanders Jr., director of CARE'S overseas operations in New York. "The last two or three years have stretched our resources to the limit, particularly in Africa, where refugee situations have become aggravated by drought."

Furthermore, resource-short third-world countries that often suffer from severe economic deprivation of their own are finding it virtually impossible to confront massive refugee influxes. In poverty-stricken Somalia, for example, almost 1 out of every 3 inhabitants is a refugee. Relief officials warn that continued international, government, and voluntary aid is therefore imperative to maintain stability.

At the same time, some refugees are more aware of their status and the availability of international aid. Their reaching out for this aid, along with inflation and the increase in refugee numbers, raises the cost of refugee care. During the last three years, for instance, the overall budget of the UNHCR has doubled -- to more than $500 million in 1980 with a similar amount expected for 1981.

"Expectations among refugees and displaced persons have risen over the past 30 years," says an official of the US Committee for Refugees. "Before, people had to stand on their own two feet. Now they expect help."

Relief sources stress that the world cannot afford to ignore the refugee situation, if even greater disruption and chaos are to be avoided.

The UNHCR sees three main solutions for dealing with refugee problems:

1. Repatriation. This is considered the best solution and has usually worked well with developing countries emerging from wars of liberation. The repatriation of 250,000 refugees this year to Zimbabwe is a recent example.

2. Local resettlement in the country of first asylum. As political solutions are not always forthcoming, hundreds of thousands of refugees are being resettled in new rural communities in neighboring countries -- refugees from Ethiopia in the Sudan, from Burundi in Tanzania, from Angola in Zaire, for example.

3. Resettlement in third countries. This is considered by relief officials as the least desirable solution. Unfortunately it appears to be the only one for many refugees, such as the vietnamese boat people, even though many of them cling to the hope that they may one day be allowed to return to their homelands.

Despite all the difficulties, relief workers keep chiseling away at the problem. Often in the past, refugee crises have appeared insurmountable. But, as relief sources point out, the coordinated efforts of the international community in many cases have eventually resolved them.

Although humanitarian aid is desperately needed to relieve the immediate misery of refugees, they add that the problem remains ultimately a political one. Its causes need to be uncovered and dealt with if lasting solutions, rather than palliatives, are to be found.

"Governments and the general public in the West have been reasonably responsive to refugee plight in certain parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia," says a well-traveled UNHCR field officer. "But one is always wondering how long it will be before the bottom falls out. If not for humanitarian reasons, we should react because the future of the West depends on solving these predicaments. If we fail to do so, we'll have chaos."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.