Where Refugees Come From

January 25, 1994|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington.--If you wonder why U.S. officials keep criticizing China on human-rights issues, or why Freedom House lists as ''not free states'' Afghanistan, Myanmar, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and others, let me tell you a story about the dimensions of human tragedy in this world:

The refugees, hundreds of them, gathered on a strip of land between the borders of Somalia and Kenya. Some were frail and elderly, others sickly and orphaned. Virtually all were exhausted, with no possessions except the ragged clothes on their backs, some water containers and pouches that once had held food.

They were fleeing Somalia because of drought, because bandits had taken all they owned, because ceaseless civil wars left them frightened and homeless.

The scene is common throughout the world. According to the first report of its kind from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees worldwide stands at 18.2 million, up from 2.5 million 20 years ago and 11 million just 10 years ago. At least 25 million more persons are displaced within their own countries. Some flee from persecution and repression, others from extreme deprivation. The majority, says the U.N., are like those in the Somali border camp, trying to escape from ''violent conflict and the breakdown of civil order in their home countries.''

In addition to wrenching individual suffering, the persistent rise in forced flight has also created international problems regarding human rights and basic issues of peace, security and stability.

We've struggled with these in the United States in divisive debates over Haitian boat people and American troops in Somalia. We see them in Europe, where an ugly backlash of racism, neo-Nazism and xenophobia has arisen against refugees and economic migrants. In both this country and abroad, beleaguered governments are taking down the ''welcome'' signs and shutting their gates.

''The traditional system for protecting refugees has come dangerously close to breaking down,'' says Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. ''The massive number of people on the move has weakened international solidarity and endangered, at times seriously, the time-honored tradition of granting asylum to those in genuine need of protection.''

The U.N. report urges all nations to offer temporary protection to displaced persons, until they can be voluntarily repatriated.

But it acknowledges that the special provisions made for protecting refugees are sometimes abused by people who have no valid claim to refugee status, and says this is undermining support for asylum in a number of recipient countries.

The long-term solution, says the U.N. report, is for all countries and international institutions to emphasize prevention -- to deal vigorously with the causes of flight before it occurs.

This does not mean beefed-up border guards or other methods of keeping refugees out. Rather, it means respecting human rights where people live and improving or erasing the conditions that cause them to flee -- economic difficulties, political instability, ethnic tensions.

''The protection that the international community can offer to refugees is not an adequate substitute for the protection that they should receive from their own governments in their own countries,'' says the U.N. report, adding that even the most generous asylum cannot replace the loss of a homeland or relieve the pain of exile.

''Societies in which no one has cause to fear persecution or generalized violence do not produce refugees.''

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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