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UN's Refugee Agency Defies Worn Stereotypes

UNHCR takes 'proactive' approach to crises

THE latest United Nations report on refugees claims that the problem is growing around the world. But the agency largely responsible for handling it, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has scored some spectacular results and might well become a role model for restructuring the international body.

The figures contained in "The State of the World's Refugees," compiled by the UNHCR, are astonishing. In 1993, UNHCR monitored 17 million people around the world; by the beginning of 1995, that number had grown to more than 27 million. Of those, some 14.5 million are refugees, defined as people who have crossed an international border and have been given asylum in another state.

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The UNHCR also deals with about 5.4 million "internally displaced people" - those who have fled for similar reasons as refugees but have not crossed into another country, largely because of civil or ethnic wars.

In a recent press conference at the UN headquarters in New York, Japanese-born High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata attributed her agency's success in part to the application of a new method of handling the increasing problem of human displacement. Instead of a "reactive" approach, she said, UNHCR applies a preventive and "proactive" policy that anticipates conditions and situations that could generate refugee situations.

The UNHCR report accurately points out that no continent is immune to mass displacements of people. In the Americas, some of the worst problems are in Guatemala, Haiti, and Cuba, but the phenomenon is no longer confined to so-called third-world countries. In fact, some of the worst problems in recent history have erupted as a consequence of the war in Bosnia and because of civil strife in Africa. Other difficult situations have sprouted in the Caucasus and central Asia, particularly Afghanistan and areas of the former Soviet Union.

Ms. Ogata, frequently mentioned as a strong candidate to succeed UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has kept her agency relatively safe from the financial vicissitudes affecting the UN. Founded in 1951, UNHCR has an executive committee made up of representatives from 50 governments, which oversees the budget and advises on refugee protection issues. UNHCR gets only limited subsidies from the UN's regular budget for administrative expenditures. The bulk of its funding comes from voluntary contributions.

Under Ogata's leadership, UNHCR's expenditure budget grew from $862.5 million in 1991 to $1.1 billion in 1994. Yet, sound management policies have kept the agency's coffers well-padded, with no significant deficits. With the US and the EU among the major donors, the agency received a total $1.06 billion in 1994, keeping it out of the red.

The statistics in the report confirm Ogata's remarks that the industrialized nations are the "most interested" in preventing a massive influx of refugees across their borders by helping fund UNHCR's new policies. Wealthy countries, it says, "have recognized that their aid, trade, investment, and foreign policies all have an impact on the scale of migration." Yet, it adds, "they are reluctant to consider radical policy changes" required to address the migration issue at its source.

In the document, Ogata proposes an early deployment of humanitarian personnel and human rights monitors to prevent conflicts from erupting "or stopping [their] spreading." In cases such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Tajikistan, the presence of monitors has already proven effective in resolving conflicts by encouraging reconciliation and dialogue.

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OGATA stresses that the right to seek asylum must be "scrupulously respected" in view of growing problems arising in some industrialized countries, including Germany, the US, and the UK, where pressures to contain immigration have increased.

If anything, the commissioner's deft management of this large global crisis - which in great measure solved the problems of more than 14 million people last year - has demonstrated that not all UN agencies deserve the same criticism. Some, such as UNHCR, have not only escaped worn-out stereotypes of waste and bloated bureaucracy but also are proof that many of the UN's humanitarian goals can be achieved under a healthy, independently supervised organization.

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