Each Time, It Takes Us by Surprise

July 22, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — Rwanda presents the largest refugee crisis in modern history, dwarfing Yugoslavia, Somalia and even the Iraqi Kurds.

Each time it is the same story. The press highlights the tragedy. Reticent governments eventually feel forced to take action, but only after they've made every argument for caution. When the wise and slow-footed can make their caveats no more it takes weeks, even months, before the official relief agencies and the peacekeepers are fully in stride. By then the casualties are enormous, the sense of failure all-consuming. A year later we make the same mistakes again in another place.

The second great refugee cycle of the 20th century is upon us, and we seem incapable of dealing with it any more intelligently than our pre-World War II predecessors.

War has always generated refugees but only in the 20th century, with the advent of industrialized warfare, has it affected entire populations. World War I displaced millions, aggravated by the collapse of the great multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires and their replacement by ethnic-based states.

The first great refugee crisis so troubled and unsettled the political stability of Europe that the League of Nations established the post of a High Commissioner for Refugees headed by the world famous Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen. It was not enough to offset the rise to power of an obscure Austrian painter who thrived on the disarray of Europe, of which the displaced refugees were a significant part.

In the 1930s came a new flood of refugees, mainly Jewish, fleeing fascism. It was then that the lack of any consistent or coherent commitment for dealing with refugees became clear. Wherever the Jewish refugees went they found the door closing. Even in the U.S., where English and Irish immigration quotas went unfilled, the Hoover and Roosevelt ad-ministrations refused accept significant numbers of Jews. The fear was that if these were accepted, more would follow.

We seem to be repeating those mistakes. Instead of stabilizing refugee situations America and, even more so, Western Europe, are profoundly destabilizing them by pushing them onto Third World countries, which already give shelter to far more refugees than anyone else.

Among the 20 African countries most critically affected by famine, 13 are hosting -- for the most part voluntarily -- ZTC substantial numbers of refugees. Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania are rolling out the welcome mat for those fleeing Rwanda. If Europe had been half as generous with those displaced in the former Yugoslavia . . . or the U.S. with Haiti . . .

The solution is hospitality. If the bigger, richer countries -- the U.S., Japan, France and Britain -- did as much as Canada, Sweden and Australia with their small populations but unusual generosity, today's problem, large as it is, would become more manageable.

And if the rich countries were as financially generous as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, countries like Tanzania and Zaire wouldn't suffer further impoverishment by opening their doors to refugees.

Improved organization and logistics would help, too. If NATO could have a permanent stand-by arrangement of the kind belatedly deployed by the U.S. in ex-Yugoslavia, supplies might be parachuted in on the first days of a crisis, helping to stave off disaster until the full-scale relief operation could be mounted.

Finally, the U.S., Britain and France should push the Security Council for a standing U.N. peacekeeping force of about 10,000 soldiers to respond quickly to trouble. In Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, two years passed after hostilities erupted before peacekeepers arrived.

Every crisis produces an enormous upwelling of sympathy for the suffering and admiration for those doctors, nurses and relief workers who risk life and health. But it does not, apparently, bring us any nearer an intelligent policy of what to do next time.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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