A world of refugees

April 11, 1991

By some estimates, Iraqi Kurds in the millions have fled Saddam Hussein's still-intact military juggernaut, swamping neighboring Turkey and Iran, neither of which is rich and both of which are worried about their own Kurdish minorities. Thousands of others are believed to have died from the fighting or its handmaidens: hunger, exposure and disease.

British Prime Minister John Major has proposed setting up a temporary "safe haven" inside Iraq itself for the Kurds, a U.N.-protected refugee zone where they can live until they can safely return to their homes. Initial support for the plan chilled after the United States backed away, mumbling concerns about possible geopolitical ramifications. But the problem isn't all about theory, it also is about large numbers of people suffering and dying and about one country exporting its hardship to the rest of the world.

The Kurdish situation is not unique, it just happens to be in the spotlight now. Yesterday's victims are still suffering, only in the shadows. Giving a sack of food to the current refugee in center stage may feed some bellies, soothe some consciences and capture a few headlines, but it solves little.

There must be a better way. Major's idea may be it.

There comes a time when the mistreatment a country inflicts on its own citizens should become a matter the world reacts to. After all, that country is making it an international problem. It is creating masses of refugees and forcing others, especially its neighbors, to pick up the open-ended burden of caring for them. It would make more sense for the people to stay in their own country, in a protected enclave, while serious efforts are made to restore humanity into the situation.

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