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World View : Millions Adrift in Their Own Lands : Displaced by disasters, economics and politics, they are a growing problem virtually ignored by the world.

March 08, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Uprooted by war, forced to flee famine and flood, made homeless by economic and political upheaval, millions of frightened and largely forgotten people are moving across the global landscape, creating a new crisis for the post-Cold War world.

No corner of the world is exempt. In the 1990s, the migrants--the "internally displaced"--can be found in European capitals, remote African villages, Asian industrial sites and the mountains of Latin America.

Unable to seek aid and comfort across national frontiers, the displaced are not refugees in the classic sense. Instead, they are trapped within their own borders, often still exposed to crisis conditions, and usually deemed by the world community to be someone else's problem. Judy Mayotte, an American relief worker and author, dubs them the "disposable people."

The dimensions are daunting. While the world is awash with 18 million refugees, the internally displaced now total more than 24 million, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and private refugee groups. And their ranks are growing fast.

Over the course of this decade, a total of 200 million to 500 million people are expected to be internally displaced at least temporarily, according to the Washington-based Refugee Policy Group. The pace of growth is far higher than that of refugees or the world population in general.

"The situation of the internally uprooted threatens to become one of the most explosive issues of the coming decades," said Mahbub ul-Haq, chief adviser to the U.N. Development Program. "It's a sleeper issue of the 21st Century."

Although an awesome problem, it is not a new one. The displaced have been a problem throughout history.

In this century, a prominent legacy of both world wars was the displacement of huge populations across both Europe and Asia.

Now, in the post-Cold War period, the situation is intense because most countries are increasingly reluctant to take in foreigners as refugees.

In a world devoid of ideological competition, there are no political points to score, only a physical and social burden and indefinite expense to absorb. The result is burgeoning numbers who can't stay at home but who also can't cross borders. So they drift within their countries, looking for safety and sustenance.

"Many would be refugees if they could, but today they don't have that opportunity. Barriers are going up and doors are closing all over the world," said Bill Frelick, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees.

Afghanistan, past and present, is illustrative. After the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation, 3 million Afghans fled to Pakistan, which was encouraged by hefty Western aid to take them in. Most remained for a decade, until the Soviet army withdrew from their homeland in 1989.

Now Afghanistan is aflame again in a civil war among political and religious factions that broke out at the first of the year. Once again, masses of Afghans are fleeing contested areas. But this time, without the Cold War factor that led to Western support, Pakistan has closed the door. It now requires travel documents, a tactic designed to keep asylum-seekers out, Frelick said. And no foreign donors are rushing in to help. While their factional leaders were once welcomed at the White House, war-weary Afghans are now virtually forgotten in Western capitals.

But Western disinterest does not make the problem go away. The displaced are a product of many factors. The projected tenfold or twentyfold increase will be influenced mainly by the breakdown of nations and changes in the nature of conflict, authorities say.

Where wars once were largely conducted between states, they now increasingly take place within a single country. Internal war or unrest, for example, has produced the 10 biggest crises worldwide: in Sudan, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, the Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan and Somalia.

Urban warfare, aerial bombardment, long-range artillery and changes in strategy have also shifted front lines from rural to densely populated settings. Wars once tended to be fought in the countryside by uniformed armies. But today, ordinary people are under fire, and increasingly they are taking flight. In World War I, 5% of casualties were civilian. The figure increased to more than 50% in World War II, according to statistics of the Refugee Policy Group. In the 1990s, up to 90% of casualties in war-torn areas are civilian.

Bosnia is the most vivid case. The two-year-long Serbian siege of Sarajevo and fighting elsewhere among Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats have produced 2.7 million displaced people within the embattled little country--more than twice the 1.2 million Bosnian refugees who have fled to neighboring states, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees has reported.

War is not the only factor driving people from their homes. Others, for instance, are natural or man-made disasters, which create the so-called eco-migrants, or environmentally displaced people.

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