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Mountains of Complexities in Aiding World's Refugees

The visit to Washington in late June of Sadoka Ogata, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), provided an important glimpse into the complexities of assisting the world's uprooted. In a speech on June 25 at Georgetown University, Mrs. Ogata estimated that more than 30 million persons have left their homes, driven by conflict, disaster, famine, or "the pressures of poverty and the aspirations for a better life." She noted: "There is hardly a corner of Africa which has been spared displacement. In Asia, Central America, the Middle East, Europe, or North America, there are refugees and displaced people." But, as she explained, the problems lie not only in the magnitude of the unprecedented movement but also in problems of definition, the increasing unwillingness of other countries to receive the dispossessed, the relationship to development, and the need for a more adequate United Nations response mechanism. To begin with, for the UNHCR, there is the definitional question: Who is a refugee? The original UN mandate relating to refugees was created after World War II to deal with those fleeing war and persecution in Europe. But, as the United States has found in both Vietnam and Central America, the upheavals in the developing world have clouded that definition. Is someone still a refugee, eligible for international protection and aid, who is not fleeing a political threat but is seeking economic opportunity? As Ogata emphasized that "refugees and migrants are two distinct categories, requiri ng different responses. In the case of migrants there is an element of choice and planning in their movement. A refugee on the other hand is forced to flee from political conflict to save his life and freedom, and therein lies his need for protection, even if he does not fear persecution in terms of the 1952 Convention on Refugees." A second question relates to the role of an international agency in cases of the internally displaced. Ogata assumed her position just as the flight of the Kurds in Iraq was beginning. The UNHCR mandate applies primarily to those who have fled their country. But this can be a flimsy distinction. As Ogata commented: "Northern Iraq demonstrated also the irrelevance of borders in responding to the humanitarian needs of the displaced. Today, the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced are no less compelling than that of those who cross national frontiers. To what extent should national sovereignty shield governments who disregard or are unable to fulfill their responsibilities toward their own citizens?" Other issues are equally daunting. At the same time that more and more people are fleeing their homes, resistance to asylum and resettlement is growing in both Europe and the United States, placing even greater importance on the need for peaceful solutions to conflicts that will permit repatriation. She noted recent progress in the Western Sahara, Angola, and Rwanda. But conditions must also be created for those returning home. Referring to a Swedish proposal for a "Comprehensive Refugee and Immigration Policy," she stressed that international protection is not enough without greater development assistance "with support for democratization and respect for human rights in refugee-producing areas so that those who have left can be encouraged to return home and others will not need to leave." Ogata spoke also of the need for a more adequate UN response system that would provide the money, the stockpiling of supplies, and the experts needed "to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies." Clearly, such a system would include not only UN agencies but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well. Referring to the problems in the southern Sudan as an example, she stressed also the need for better security for personnel and supplies: "We must build on principles of humanitarian law and past experience of UN agencies, ICRC, and NGOs to develop a legal framework and practical guidelines for 'humanitarian access' so that international protection and assistance can continue to be provided in areas lacking security or under conflict." With the constant television coverage of the world's wars and disasters, the problems of which Ogata has spoken will continue to demand attention. Her plea is that we not only view the tragedy with compassion, but that we understand that the answer does not lie only in temporary relief. International coordinated economic and political efforts are essential if the uprooted, whether within or outside a country, are to return to a safe and satisfactory life at home.

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