World Refugees: Arthur Helton

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.

Today, nearly 20 million refugees and a further 25 million internally displaced persons are suffering untold miseries. "Refugees are the flesh-and-blood personification of the chaos and insecurities that we confront in the new century which now seems so suddenly fraught with danger," writes Arthur C. Helton, Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in his new book The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century. His study demonstrates that recent policy failures have resulted in instability, terrible hardships, and massive loss of life. The plight of refugee women, the specific theme of this year’s World Refugee Day, is captured in Helton’s description of the notorious Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Talk to Arthur Helton about this issue.

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Arthur Helton founded and directed the Forced Migration Projects at the Open Society Institute in New York prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he directed the Refugee Project at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.


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Pound Ridge, NY: President Bush has distanced himself from the notion of nation building. Can refugee and humanitarian emergencies be addressed effectively without some form of nation building after conflict subsides, and is this a policy the US should support?

Arthur Helton: Many but not all humanitarian catastrophes lead to efforts to rebuild societies. The US government should have among its policy options a capacity to contribute to state building efforts. That is a lesson of the past decade, which witnessed international operations in the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Haiti and East Timor. Refugees are a product of state failure and nation building may be necessary to sustain a humanitarian solution.


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New York, NY: 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 Helton: The arrangements for Palestinian refugees are unique and a facet of a peace negotiation which at the moment seems somewhat illusory. In general, refugees are persons who are outside of their home country and who have a well-founded fear of persecution upon return and who have not found a new home country.


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Washington, DC: What is being done to help the plight of the Palestinians who have been refugees all over the world since 1948?

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Arthur Helton: Special political and institutional arrangements have been made as part of a hoped-for peace process. This includes the establishment of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The solution for Palestinian refugees, likely comprising return in some instances and compensation in lieu of return in others, will be addressed in the final stages of a peace settlement.


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New York, NY: The United Nations is sometimes characterized as a bloated, politicized and ineffective bureaucracy. Does the UN system have the wherewithal in terms of capacities and resources to effectively protect refugees and help them repatriate when crises subside?

Arthur Helton: Not fully. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees often does heroic work. But when it comes to ensuring that people can return and reestablish themselves in their home country, the UN system has but a limited capacity. We are witnessing this problem as one million refugees have returned so far this year to Afghanistan.


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Washington, D.C.: Who qualifies as a "refugee"? The Palestinians refer to themselves as refugees, but very few people seem to remember the 600,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries in the last century. Isn’t the term "refugee" a politically loaded one?

Arthur Helton: The UN refugee treaties provide that a person is a refugee if he or she is outside of their home country and has a well-founded fear of persecution upon return on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Currently, nearly 20 million persons around the world are counted by UNHCR in this category. As I noted before, Palestinian refugees are a special political category.


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Washington, DC: Do refugees have any rights in their host countries? Are they destined to be treated like outsiders?

Arthur Helton: In theory, refugees have rights under several sources of international law, including human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law. But these legal norms have weak implementation and enforcement mechanisms. Often, refugee rights and realities can be very different.


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New York, NY: How does the United Nations commemorate World Refugee Day?

Arthur Helton: The specific theme for World Refugee Day this year is the plight of refugee women. The largest program of events is occurring at Union Station in Washington, DC. But this is a grim story and hardly cause for celebration. In my new book, The Price of Indifference, I survey the experience of the past decade and find that all too often decision makers are willing consign people to hardship and deprivation. New policies are needed to avoid this outcome.


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Orlando, FL: What can be done to ease the world refugee crisis? Is this a political or humanitarian problem?

Arthur Helton: This is a humanitarian problem that does not have a humanitarian solution. To solve the problem, humanitarian action must be astutely political without losing core human rights values. We need policy that is capable of preventing or mitigating a humanitarian catastrophe in the first instance, as well as to ensure that crises do not recur. This requires new ways of organizing policy, which I recommend in my new book.


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Detroit, MI: When countries go to war, are they obligated by any international treaty or convention to help or relocated displaced people?

Arthur Helton: Yes. Under the laws of war, people may be displaced only as a result of military necessity. In general, under human rights law, people are free to move within their home countries. Under refugee law, states are to receive asylum seekers into their territory. But in practice, these norms are often violated. One product is refugees.


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Los Angeles, CA: Why do you think this issue doesn’t get enough attention? Why does the Western world turn a blind eye on so many millions of refugees?

Arthur Helton: There are many ways for decision makers to be indifferent to the problem of refugees. During the Cold War, US policy makers sometimes avoided the issue on grounds that intervention would produce retaliation and escalation. A question for our era is whether the war on terrorism will be used to justify indifference.


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Brooklyn, NY: If a "refugee" is in a UN funded refugee camp and purposely refuses to try to find a new home and stays for indeed decades and has his children and grand-children stay is that worthy of consideration more than the millions of other refugees in the world that left on their own to find new homes and build new lives? (Because this is what many Palestinian "refugees" are doing now since 1948)

Arthur Helton: It is hard to know the precise motivation of the millions of Palestinian exiles. Political leaders have tended to regard them as hostages to a peace negotiation. There are other examples, like Cyprus and deported peoples in the former Soviet Union. But this should not affect responses to refugees who have fled more recently and who find themselves often warehoused in the abnormal and broken communities that inhabit refugee camps. This is a chronic feature of our time which requires new policy solutions.


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Washington, DC: Can the international refugee protection regime withstand the post-September 11 reappraisal of state security? UNHCR touts the exculsion clauses in article 1(f) and asserts that nothing need be changed. On the other hand Tony Blair and the other Fortress Europe folks have been openly calling for reopening the law on this question. Should the regime be updated? Would we like the result?

Arthur Helton: Refugee and asylum policy is being securitized as a result of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11. The task will be to ensure that these new security measures do not violate the rights of refugees.


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Comment from Arthur Helton: All of these questions underscore why refugees matter. To states, they can be security risks. To ordinary people, they can be objects of pity and charity. But refugees matter most fundamentally because at some level we all realize that but for the accidents of birth and circumstance, we could be refugees ourselves. Because they matter, decision makers will have to attach greater importance to solving the problem of refugees. That is the rationale for my book, The Price of Indifference.

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