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Steps to a Better Refugee Policy

America has always been a refuge for the persecuted - a city on the hill beckoning the victims of repression. Certainly, we have had black days - those fleeing Nazi persecution, for example, were turned back when the St. Louis tried to land, in the infamous "Voyage of the Damned." But World War II taught us that, in humanitarian and military affairs, early leadership saves lives. Three generations of postwar leaders built a laudable record helping victims escape from communism around the globe, which was an indispensable part of our cold-war victory.

Now US leadership faces different challenges. Too often our leadership of the international community - in Somalia, Bosnia, Central Africa - has resulted in "too little, too late."

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The US Commission on Immigration Reform will soon issue a report detailing a more effective refugee policy. One recommendation deserves early attention. The commission wants the president and Congress to establish a senior-level task force to set criteria and guidelines for the involvement of US military forces in humanitarian operations related to refugees and internally displaced persons. We do not necessarily recommend such involvement. It might be better for an international humanitarian force to be created. But currently only the US military has the aircraft, all-terrain trucks, and water-purification equipment to do the job.

Since the end of the cold war, the US military has been involved in complex operations involving humanitarian issues. It also has provided logistical support to more humanitarian operations. Military resources and facilities have been used to interdict, rescue, process, and protect migrants.

We can be sure the so-called "CNN effect" - the understandable demand for action when the world witnesses mass catastrophes - will continue to place pressure on the president to act swiftly as emergencies develop. To avoid fatal mistakes, including the ones that result from failing to act promptly as well as acting in haste, we should plan ahead.

The government has developed criteria for the participation of the US military in peacemaking and peacekeeping operations. Similar guidelines do not exist for the broader array of humanitarian action. Some operations depend only on logistics. But US forces have been involved in refugee crises that require negotiating access with warlords, stopping the hijacking of supply convoys, and preventing the murder of relief workers.

The task force should include the secretary of state, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of central intelligence, key leaders of Congress, international and nongovernmental organizations, and religious institutions. Its mandate should cover developing criteria for engagement; formulating a code of conduct during deployment; analyzing the on-the-ground effects of humanitarian assistance; evaluating the interaction between humanitarian operations and political and diplomatic efforts; devising necessary training; delineating agency responsibilities; and clarifying funding issues.

Quicker, more decisive action to protect and assist refugees and internally displaced persons will not come easily. The situations that create refugees - conflict, political repression, human rights abuses - hinder access. Reaching those in war zones involves real risks. No country can take on such a role lightly. The US, with its tremendous resources, has a special responsibility to assess when and how it will respond to such widespread suffering. It isn't merely because it has resources that the US should meet this responsibility. It is because it is the right thing to do - it is who we are, and why the world looks to us for leadership.

* Shirley M. Hufstedler is chair of the bipartisan US Commission on Immigration Reform.

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