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Humanitarian emergency

THE report of the Kissinger commission has been variously embraced and condemned by those who have positions on the many elements of the Central American maze. However, at least one major piece of the puzzle has been provided scant attention not only by the commission but also by the preoccupied governments of the region and the world humanitarian community. It is the matter of 1 million people displaced from their homes by violence, a problem endemic to the region.

I recently studied this situation and found that in a region where approximately 22 million live, 1 million uprooted people constitute a significant problem. In comparative impact it is as if the population (nearly 12 million) of Pennsylvania were suddenly displaced, and the US (about 227 million) had to help them cope as the problem grows.

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Displaced people often share the same miseries of other disadvantaged persons - poor health, interrupted education, unemployment, inadequate housing, a fragile future. These regionwide conditions were analyzed in some detail in the commission's final report. But the commission did not adequately recognize that the status of being uprooted itself creates special stresses that must be understood and addressed if conditions of economic, social, and political stability, equity, and progress - the central goals of American policy - are ever to be achieved in Central America. This is true whether the uprooted cross a border and, therefore, become recognized ''refugees'' or remain in their home country as ''internally displaced'' persons.

Because they are uprooted, these people face several unique difficulties:

1. They have been severed from the support systems that family and community provide. The trauma of loss of ''home'' breeds unusual insecurity. The pre-existing social and economic aid systems which might have provided adequate assistance if the displaced still lived in their homes and villages must be restructured.

2. The displaced often overwhelm the support systems and officials of districts providing temporary shelter. If they cross a border into a neighboring country, they present new and sometimes dangerous political problems for countries which already have problems of their own.

3. They are always thought to be a temporary problem, in their minds and in the view of the governments that care for them. Thus they remain a low priority.

4. Their very situation dissipates the effective use of their talents and labor. Lost as human resources, the displaced find it difficult to contribute constructively to their own solution.

As the commission points out, the nations of the region are plagued with massive economic, social, political, and security problems. Because the region's governments are preoccupied with the hostilities, they generally accord the uprooted an unfocused response.

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The uprooted in the region do represent a humanitarian emergency, particularly the 700,000 or more internally displaced in El Salvador and Guatemala. They do not receive even the marginal benefit of being recognized as refugees. The limited assistance they receive is not geared toward reestablishing them as part of organized society. The commission had the opportunity to respond to this emergency. Instead, it proposed numerous initiatives that amount to putting the cart before the horse. But the displaced population needs help now. Many of the commission's social assistance recommendations depend on social and political stability to be effective. What the commission did not grasp is that aiding the displaced population could help create a more stable atmosphere for everyone. We should have learned this lesson in Vietnam.

The commission's limited vision is unfortunate in another sense. It may be hard for the many sectors of American public opinion to reach consensus on the political/military positions adopted by the commission. But concerning the displaced, I suspect even the commissioners would agree to respond if they perceived the problem. Regardless of the other issues, this human tragedy needs to be dealt with on its own merits.

As the US reevaluates its approach to the region, conscious efforts to deal with the plight of the uprooted in Central America is a prerequisite for effectively responding to their needs and those of the region. They require an immediate, not long-term, initiative.

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