Refugee, migration tide worsens population woes

September 07, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- The nightmares of Rwanda, repeated often . . . the ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo, happening again . . . more and more desperate "boat people" arriving on unwelcoming shores. These are the scenes of a future world crowded with too many people.

Such visions haunt the international population conference as it tries to imagine how soaring population growth will boost the problems caused by refugees and migration.

Already the world is witnessing an accelerating movement of people around the globe. An estimated 125 million people -- about one in every 50 -- have left their homes, either as refugees forced to flee or migrants seeking a better life.

Massive movements of people are a loose cannon on the ship of the world. A sudden surge of refugees can overwhelm unprepared neighbors already poor -- such as Zaire or Thailand. A gradual flow of immigrants to a rich country can bring resentment and political woes, as in Germany.

United Nations officials worry that situations such as the Cuban influx to the United States threaten the granting of political asylum, long a pillar of international protection. They fear that large-scale migration may lead countries to further restrict entry.

"We react to emergencies only -- and then, too late and too defensively," Sergio Marchi, the minister of citizenship and immigration for Canada, said yesterday. "We must make progress on the migration issues to move us beyond the frustrations of the status quo."

The causes of these human movements are political, economic and social. But the increase in population adds to the pressure. Some officials already cite overcrowding as a factor in recent tragedies such as those in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia.

"The strife in Rwanda is a frightening example of ethnic conflict ignited by population pressure on diminishing land resources," said Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

That is alarming when coupled with the projections that the world's population will double in the next 60 years unless there is a significant reduction in the birthrate. "Our margin for error is shrinking," Vice President Al Gore said Monday.

U.N. estimates show that the number of refugees -- people fleeing for their lives -- increased from 2.5 million in 1970 to 20 million today. Many of these dangerous, headline-grabbing exoduses happen, ironically, because the Cold War has ended, according to Mrs. Ogata.

"The end of the Cold War took the lid off," she said yesterday. "The recent outflows are the result of latent, deep animosity that existed between ethnic and tribal groups, that were more or less contained in the Cold War."

The greater numbers of people on the move are migrants, propelled not by war or famine, but by an urgent desperation to improve their lives.

They migrate for many reasons: better work, education, political freedoms, or to escape lands made unhospitable by droughts or changes in the environment. Much of this migration is from poor to rich countries. The top four destinations of legal migrants are Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Developed countries often benefit from the labor force made up of migrants. But the influx of foreigners may shake political nerves.

"It can cause a lot of confusion, social destabilization, and lead to backlash," Mrs. Ogata said.

The 113-page Program of Action for overpopulation that will be adopted by the International Conference on Population offers some concrete recommendations for handling these moving masses.

It urges countries to ensure safety and work protections for migrants, to ease banking restrictions to allow them to transfer money, to increase arrangements for temporary migration and to assist migrants in returning to their homes.

Long-term migrants should be given equal treatment with nationals, and should have civil and political rights, the plan urges. The plan recognizes the right of each country to enact migration restrictions.

The population conference has few suggestions to try to stop flights of refugees fearing for their lives. Neighboring countries should provide "at least temporary protection and treatment," and the international community must help them shoulder that burden, the plan of action concludes.

Most worrying to U.N. officials is the wariness of countries to grant refugees the protection of political asylum, used for more than 3,500 years. Asylum requests to North America and Europe surged in the last decade to 700,000 from 90,000.

Only when wars and famines stop will such flights end, officials acknowledged.

"Refugees are a symptom of the world's ills," Mrs. Ogata said. "It would be counterproductive to continue to treat the symptoms, when we should address the reasons that cause people to leave their homes."

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