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As doors slam in the faces of millions of refugees, UN searches for answers

TOO few countries are willing to play host - either by offering permanent asylum or temporary shelter - to a growing number of refugees. That's the daily dilemma facing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as it tries to help millions fleeing conflicts from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda to Afghanistan and Haiti.

``Doors are slamming in refugees' faces,'' insists UNHCR senior liaison officer Marie Okabe. Yet UNCHR's job is growing. The agency's $1.2 billion budget, chiefly voluntary government contributions, has doubled since 1990 as it searches for better ways to protect a record 19 million refugees and millions more trying to escape war and famine within their nation's borders.

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The 26 million internally displaced civilians now exceed the number of refugees. William Frelick, senior policy analyst at the US Committee for Refugees, a private agency that tracks refugee progress, says the rise is closely linked to a decline in asylum offers. ``There simply aren't other places for these people to go,'' he says. ``The trend is very much one of countries operating in what they see as their self-interest and pushing people out.''

Though UNHCR helps in such situations when asked - in Bosnia, it is the lead coordinating agency for 4 million refugees and displaced people - no agency exists to deal with the internally displaced. The UN Commission on Human Rights has asked UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to recommend by January 1995 improved ways to protect such citizens. ``This is a burning issue within the UN system right now,'' Ms. Okabe admits.

UNHCR is also working to clarify the distinction between someone fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution, the standard definition of a refugee, and an economic migrant seeking a better life.

Sometimes a refugee exodus occurs with lightning speed. In one 24-hour period in May during Rwanda's civil war, some 200,000 people fled to Tanzania. France says 900,000 more Rwandans have fled to the French-protected humanitarian enclave in southwest Rwanda.

As more affluent nations impose visa and other limits on would-be asylum seekers, many refugees have been forced to flee to poorer countries. Sometimes the new hardship they face is as bad as what they left behind. Several hundred Somalis who escaped war at home to cross the Red Sea and take up residence in Yemen were killed in May when fighting erupted there.

But wars do end, and refugees repatriate. In the last two years, about 4.2 million refugees have voluntarily gone home, according to UNHCR. More than half went back to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran; thousands more have returned to Cambodia and former Central American war zones. More than half of the 1.5 million refugees who fled Mozambique during its civil war have returned in time to vote in the October elections.

Still, unless root causes of conflict are addressed and development aid is coordinated with relief efforts, as UN officials say they are increasingly trying to do, conditions causing refugees to flee can resurface. Okabe tells of one Afghan family that returned to a home in Kabul after a 15-year absence in Pakistan only to experience renewed warfare that destroyed the house and forced them to seek refuge in a crumbling school building.

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