World Refugee Day

June 25, 2002

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

In 2000, a special UN General Assembly Resolution was unanimously adopted which designated 20 June every year as World Refugee Day. The date was chosen as an expression of solidarity with Africa, to coincide with Africa Refugee Day, which is celebrated on 20 June in several countries.

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Arthur C. Helton, senior fellow of Refugee Studies and Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century, was online Thursday, June 20 at 1 p.m. EDT, to discuss the status of refugees throughout the world and the steps the U.S. and UN are—and could—take to ease the situation.

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Refugees and Displaced Persons

A transcript follows.

Editor’s Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


New York, N.Y.: In classifying people as "refugees" are they always inclusive of people that already fround homes elsewhere and all their children and grandchildren as well? Because then probably millions of Europeans from world war one and two would qualify, and Holcaust survivor descendents as well as those Jews and their descendents that fled from Arab countries after Israel was founded. Or is this uniquely applied only for Palestinian Arabs?

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Arthur C. Helton: This and several other questions posted raise a basic point: Who is a refugee? There are several ways to answer this question, including with a focus on legal matters or sociological and philosophical dimensions. In terms of law, the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees provides that individuals who flee their home country, and who have a well founded fear of persecution upon return for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, are to receive international refugee protection. And there are nearly 20 million such individuals in the world today. But vast numbers of others are uprooted and in flight within and outside of their home countries as well. In some real sense, they also are like refugees, and in need of assistance and protection. There may be upwards of 50 million of these forced migrants.


Arlington, Va.: Why are the Palestinians (and their offspring) who were displaced during the 1947-48 war considered refugees, while an equal number of Jews who were concurrently driven from their homes in Arab countries do not share such status? Is the only thing that makes one a refugee the stated desire of returning, as opposed to the circumstances (i.e. against one’s own will) that led one to leave in the first place?

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Arthur C. Helton: Understandibly, this and several other questions inquire about the situation of Palestinian refugees. Separate and distinct from the universal UN treaty concerning refugees, arrangements were made beginning in 1948 for persons displaced from Palestine. From that time to the present,through a series of United Nations resolutions, a refugee category has been created for these individuals and their descendants. A separate international organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA), was established to oversee assistance and development activities concerning these individuals. This refugee category was seen from the outset as an element of a peace process which now seems to be sliding backwards. In effect, the Palestinian refugee category is an international contract that is being negotiated in the context of this hoped-for peace process.


Alexandria, Va.: Are there hundreds of thousands of descendants of Palestinian refugees who live in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza? Are these people satisfied with living in the West Bank and Gaza or do they demand the right to move to inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders? Do you think that the Palestinians would be satisfied with land-for-peace, or do they demand right-of-refugees-to-settle-in-Israel PLUS land for peace?

Arthur C. Helton: As I noted before, the Palestinian refugee question can be seen as a political negotiation—a contract which could be bought out. It is hard to know what are the specific hopes and dreams of these millions of individuals. But the political framework has become clearer over time. Palestinian refugees are hostage to a political solution which at this moment must seem remote. But the issues will be presented squarely when a final settlement is discussed. I believe that there will compensation offered in lieu of taking advantage of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. There will be some return. But substantial sums are likely to be made available by Western nations to both governments in the region and individuals in order to secure a settlement. The technical mechanism to accomplish this outcome would have to be established as part of a peace settlement.


Alexandria, Va.: Back in 1974 there were many Greek refugees from northern Cyprus and Turkish refugees from southern Cyprus living in refugee camps. Why is it that the Cypriots no longer live in refugee camps but the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do?

Arthur C. Helton: I have addressed the special arrangements for Palestinian refugees in earlier answers. But I think it’s important to note that many of the world’s refugees reside in camps. These are often artificial and dangerous arrangements in which the inhabitants of these broken communities face abuse and hardship. In my new book, The Price of Indifference, I depict the situation of the Dadaab camps in Kenya where tens of thousands of Somali refugees have been warehoused for many years. Increasingly, refugee arrangements in Africa will look like this unless we find ways to improve refugee policy and humanitarian action.


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,

The rightward turn of European politics (Denmark’s turn has a story in today’s Post, several articles in the past French election) provide a stronger need for the U.S. to be involved in supporting refugees with material and resources or by providing a safe haven?

Arthur C. Helton: Yes. The United States is a leading actor in terms of refugee policy and humanitarian initiatives. One of the unique tools available to US decision makers is resettlement of refugees. The US has resettled over 2 million refugees since 1980, when our current refugee program was established. The current refugee admissions ceiling for 2002 is 70,000, but only 14,000 refugees have arrived so far due to new security measures, which is cause for concern. Millions of Americans now personally know refugees as neighbors and entrepreneurs. They have heard their messages of misery and revived hope far more vividly than they could learn by watching television or listening to the radio. This, plus the significant financial contributions made by the US government to humanitarian causes, are the instruments of leadership, and examples for European leaders.


Vienna, Va.: What does "refugee status" mean? How can a person possibly show-up in the United States with no money, and maybe not even speaking the language, and expect to be anything but homeless and poor?

For example, Richmond is famous for it’s homeless population. They are very visable in the downtown area. It is very hard for them to find a job that pays a living wage where they could save enough for a down payment and the first month’s rent on an apartment. Do refugees simply add to this pool of misery?

Arthur C. Helton: Certainly, many refugee arrive with very little. That is why special assistance is provided by our government to help these individuals become part of society. Over time, refugees, like immigrants, contribute to our society in a variety of ways, including economically. But the primary reason to resettle refugees is not economic; rather, it is an expression of American values and a way to help persons in distress.


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,

How has involving one of the former heads of a private relief agency in charge of USAID made a difference in the perspectives or procedures for U.S. aid?

Does the U.S. aid model have the potential for assisting internally and externally displaced people?

Arthur C. Helton: Maybe. Having astute leadership at USAID will help. But there is much fragmentation within the US government in the formulation and implementation of refugee and humanitarian policy. I recommend in my new book the establishment of a separate Agency for Humanitarian Action - AHA! This would encourage better designed policy which could prevent or mitigate humanitarian catastrophes in a way that the current structures cannot. This is so despite the fact that there are many smart and well-intentioned people in these agencies.


Washington, D.C.: What can I do to help these people?

Arthur C. Helton: Leadership matters on refugee issues. We need more champions in decision making circles of humanitarian causes. This includes Congress. Ordinary Americans who are concerned about these questions will and should demand action from their leaders. That is a message that can be sent on World Refugee Day, which particularly profiles the plight of refugee women.


Vienna, Va.: Could you expand on the special assistance? Do they receive money? Education? Housing?

Arthur C. Helton: Modest sums are made available from the federal goverment through state goverments to non-govermentmental organizations which provide integration services to recently arrived refugees. This includes housing assistance for a short period of time, as well as a cash allowance and education (including English instruction) or job training. Many times, local church groups contribute to these efforts. Most of the work, however, is done by the individuals who must reorient themselves to a new community. In fundamental terms, this is a modern version of America’s immigration story.


New York, N.Y.: Are you concerned that the war on terrorism will impair our willingness to protect and assist refugees? Are refugees really a danger to us?

Arthur C. Helton: Refugees are the price of indifference. That is the meaning of the title of my new book. During the Cold War, refugees were often trophies or embarrassments. It was possible for our leaders to resist calls for involvement on the grounds that a humanitarian initiative could result in retaliation or escalation by the Soviet empire. This is so, even though refugees can cause instability and represent threats to international security. After the Cold War, these calls for action were harder to resist and the US became involved in a number of humanitarian interventions, with mixed results. Whether the war on terrorism will provide a new justification for indifference is a question for our era. Recent trends limiting refugee resettlement in the United States, efforts in Western Europe to close the door to asylum seekers, and continuing neglect of vast populations whose lives are wasted in camps around the world, notably Africa, are cause for concern that we may be entering into a new phase of indifference.

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