Too Many Refugees for Peace

JONATHAN POWER

September 04, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

DUSSELDORF, GERMNAY — Dusseldorf, Germany. -- Three years ago, refugees flooding ++ from east to west were instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall, the single most sinister symbol of the Cold War.

Now, anti-refugee riots flaring up in ex-East Germany have become the ugliest reminder of what was worst in the former Communist dictatorship, a propensity to vitriolic intolerance.

Yet, here in the prosperous, educated, former West Germany, there are significant numbers of Germans who are taking Yugoslav refugees into their own homes. Germans today make more effort than most to lend a hand to the underdog and dispossessed.

Last year, Germany took in 40 percent of all the refugees admitted to the West, a quarter-million of them. The Germans are now struggling with a constitution that ties them to the open door.

The Germans cannot cope. But can anyone else? In 1951, there were only 1.5 million refugees. By 1980, there were 8.2 million. Today there are 18 million.

Contrary to myth, it is not the United States that has the widest door of welcome. It is not Europe either, even though it takes in six times as many as America. It is the Third World.

The great majority of refugees seek shelter -- and are given it -- in the world's poorer countries. Among the 20 African countries most critically affected by famine, 13 are hosting -- for the most part voluntarily -- a substantial number of refugees.

Contrary to myth, aid to refugees is not always humanitarian. The U.S. consciously used its ''refugee aid'' to underpin the Afghani refugee-guerrillas in Pakistan, and United Nations relief and food agencies were pressed by the big Western nations to support Khmer Rouge camps in Thailand which were used as military training centers.

The crisis today in the Horn of Africa is rooted in the geo-political competition between Moscow and Washington in the 1970s and '80s that used international relief programs to support one refugee warrior group against another.

The reduction of tension between the old superpowers, and their disengagement from many regional conflicts which generated so many of the refugees in the past, does make it easier in some cases to wind down the fighting and send the refugees home. (The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is attempting to raise funds for 20 such repatriation programs.)

Nevertheless, what is apparent in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union is that the end of the rival meddling of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is of little significance to a number of deep-rooted nationalistic and ethnic conflicts.

At one time, outsiders could afford to detach themselves from consequences of their own or others' actions. These days, television takes us into the abyss of every crisis. Cheap, fast transport brings the fleeing bodies to the nearest open door.

But asylum policies are universally incoherent and ineffective. The cost in Europe of processing asylum applications and feeding, clothing and housing refugees while they await a decision on admittance is an extraordinary $7 billion a year. This is ten times the annual world-wide expenditure of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

The relatively recent spate of unwanted migrations, Kurds from Iraq, Vietnamese to Hong Kong, Haitians to the U.S., Bhutans to Nepal and Yugoslavs to Germany, raises the question whether the world can go on tolerating internal policies once considered a country's own business that so profoundly affect a neighbor's well-being, security and stability?

For the first time ever, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iraq's Kurdish population and refugees poured over the mountains into Turkey and Iran, the world said no.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 was a marker for our times. It was the first time a Security Council resolution explicitly stated that the international community had a right to intervene with humanitarian aid to protect a people even if its state did not agree.

The three Western allies used this resolution (with pretty shaky legality) as the basis for a military intervention to avert the threat to ''peace and security in the region'' posed by ''a massive flow of refugees towards and across international frontiers.''

Perhaps we have to prepare for more such action in the future, though in Yugoslavia the conflict is so complicated that simple military action a la Kurds is not practical.

There are many situations when a far-sighted step before a situation spins out of control could stem a refugee crisis in the making. This is why the peace-keepers should have gone into Yugoslavia at the beginning of the crisis. And why the peace-keepers arriving in Somalia next week are a year too late.

Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on Third World issues.

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