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War on Terror Hurts Refugees Too

Author: Arthur C. Helton
July 16, 2002


The preoccupation of the United States and other governments with the war on terrorism is constricting the hopes of refugees.

Many Western governments, for example, have increased restrictions on political asylum. Such a harsh approach poses its own risks because, ultimately, indifference to refugees compromises safety and security around the world.

There are now nearly 20 million refugees worldwide who have left their home countries out of well-founded fear of persecution. This is the classic definition of a refugee. Think of the tens of thousands of Central Americans who were granted protected status in the United States after fleeing civil wars in the 1980s, or the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who came here after the North won the war in 1975.

Less visible but just as important are the estimated 25 million people displaced within their countries because of armed conflict and serious human rights abuses. Both types of displaced people too often end up warehoused for years in the broken communities called refugee camps.

Take the Ifo refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, where on a sweltering day recently I visited with Somali leaders in the course of researching a book. I mentioned to the elders that Ifo looked more like a town than the emergency encampment I had first visited in 1993. They objected and patiently described the plight of the nearly 130,000 camp inhabitants and the variety of ways in which Ifo is anything but a normal town.

Violence is so pervasive that residents are afraid to leave their homes at night. Women who forage for firewood are routinely raped. Refugees are confined to camp, forbidden to become part of Kenyan society but prevented by chaos in Somalia from going home.

Western indifference to this misery and corrosive instability can carry a terrible price. As the world has seen in Bosnia, Rwanda, the West Bank and elsewhere, refugees can become a dangerous, radicalized force. Rather than turning away from refugees, we should seek to solve their need for permanent homes and confront the causes of displacement in their home countries.

During the Cold War, refugees were trophies for one side and embarrassments for the other. Both sides encouraged defectors. As the ideological confrontation receded, Western governments adopted policies to deter refugees from coming to the West and to contain them near their home countries.

This restrictionism is spreading, particularly in light of new concerns about terrorism. New background checks and security measures have slowed resettlement of even accepted refugees in the United States. The costs associated with security measures will surely make our refugee program increasingly vulnerable in future budget negotiations.

Although President George W. Bush established a 2002 admissions ceiling of 70,000 refugees from around the world (mainly from camps), less than 20,000 have arrived with only two months remaining in the fiscal year. The new antagonism toward refugees is also reflected in debates in Britain, France, Germany and Spain over tightening immigration and restricting asylum. Even such a traditionally liberal and welcoming country as Denmark has now enacted laws limiting haven for asylum seekers.

During the Cold War, international interventions were avoided in situations such as the abortive Hungarian revolution - which led to a refugee outflow in 1956 - on the ground that this could invite retaliation and escalation. By the 1990s, however, the hands-off policy was clashing with images of humanitarian catastrophes unfolding gruesomely on the evening news. Public opinion shifted strongly toward action, and the West launched audacious initiatives in the former Yugoslavia, northern Iraq, East Timor, Haiti and Somalia.

The results were decidedly mixed and produced some hard lessons. The international effort to help Afghanistan recover from two decades of war is better organized than previous efforts, even though it still may fail.

The military campaign against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans. A million more refugees who previously fled the Taliban have returned to that devastated country and need help to re-establish themselves. Possible preemptive military action in Iraq, the Philippines and elsewhere would cause great additional displacements. The causes of displacement and the misery of exile must be addressed earlier and more effectively.

Unless the rest of the world grasps the need of refugees for more than a fenced camp, the radicalism of the hopeless will continue to nurture terror and cause instability.

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