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Latest Advice for Many Refugees: If You Can't Go Home, Settle Down

A TEAM of European scholars is proposing a novel approach to helping some of the world's refugees.

The idea, as laid out by the Swiss Academy for Development (SAD), is that refugees with little chance of ever returning to their homeland be integrated into their host country and opt for eventual citizenship.

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In four pilot projects in Iran, Kurdish and other refugees were given financial help to create small businesses. The new communities of employed workers are beginning to coexist with nearby Iranian villages.

The success of this approach so far in Iran -- which leads the world in ''displaced persons,'' with nearly 2.5 million crowded into border camps -- will be touted by SAD at a United Nations conference on social development to be held in Copenhagen in March.

Much of the world treats refugees as temporary problems, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) taking the lead in coping with the world's displaced. SAD scholars see long-standing refugee camps, such as those created for Palestinians in 1948, as social tinderboxes -- especially if the displaced people are left in indefinite poverty with no hope of becoming self-reliant.

''It's an illusion of the UNHCR,'' says Farhad Afshar, an Iranian sociologist at the University of Bern, Switzerland, ''that you keep people in camps for a short time, not realizing that a 'temporary' situation can easily drag on for 20 years.

''It would be much cheaper to spend the money now invested in three years of camp maintenance -- funds spent only on providing nutrition -- by investing it in skilled training,'' Dr. Afshar adds.

To test this premise, SAD -- a social-science research group set up with Swiss government help -- created the International Charitable Organization (ICO) -- a nongovernmental organization -- in Iran to run the pilot projects.

Foremost among the SAD guidelines is a need to resettle refugees permanently in their ''land of first reception'' -- countries usually similar in culture to their abandoned homelands.

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Afshar describes the four refugee ''experiment'' sites near the Iran/Iraq border as models for reform. He hails the projects as a ''cheap but dramatic'' breakthrough that development strategists should study and reproduce:

*Siveh -- where Afshar says SAD conceived the idea of ''first changing a refugee camp into a guest house, then into a normal community.'' The project involves equipping the community with a park/playground/sports center and a ''mobilization center'' to train women. The goal calls for training long-term refugees to become self-reliant and independent local citizens.

*Gavlan -- nicknamed the ''Flower Village'' -- where refugees have built their own modest but attractive new homes in a northern community near the borders with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iraq. Refugees now occupy some 84 homes with 60 still to be built. Afshar calls Gavlan ''an integrated, industrialized new village to create income and the possibility to settle down.''

*Sanidaj -- where the stress is on creating jobs. A brick tile factory now under construction uses a new technology to produce building materials from shale. Workers are invited to Sanidaj from a nearby camp, living in temporary quarters. Eventually they will build their own homes, as in Gavlan.

*Avhaz -- Iran granted SAD/ICO 247,000 acres in an area where so-called marshland Iraqis fled after Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed their habitat. ''We've settled them down in a countryside village,'' Afshar says. ''We'll create farming jobs and housing.''

The UNHCR official in Tehran, Pierre Jambour, while lending his agency's support to ''any project with long-term solutions to the refugee problem,'' suggests the cost per refugee seems high by current standards. That could curtail widespread use of the approach elsewhere.

But Afshar points out that when a ''displaced person'' enters Switzerland seeking political asylum, investigators spend on the average of up to $64,000 checking the case. Some 94 percent of applicants are finally rejected after months and even years of bureaucratic police work. Other European countries report roughly similar rejection rates. The migrant must then seek asylum in some other land with the same dim acceptance prospects.

But according to SAD and ICO, a refugee can be resettled, retrained, and made ''self-reliant'' for a tenth of the cost of processing his or her asylum request in a European country.

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