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No Money, No Space, No Patience--the New Refugee Welcome

February 25, 2001|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who works extensively in countries in conflict

WASHINGTON — This is not a good winter to be a refugee. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Guinea's refugee camps--dismal stops on the road to nowhere for victims of conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone--among the world's worst humanitarian tragedies. Since last summer, more than 100,000 new refugees from Afghanistan, the latest among more than 4 million Afghans to escape drought and fighting in their country, have nowhere to go. Stranded along the frontiers of war-torn states, exiles now encounter closed doors, closed opportunities and increasingly closed minds.

In 1951, in the wake of World War II that made millions stateless, the United Nations enshrined a basic humanitarian principle in law: the right to leave one's country, if necessary, and find sanctuary elsewhere. The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees was not a paean to charity, but a code of respect that acknowledged the right of individuals who flee to have a place to land. Refugees symbolized a part of postwar global politics: human-sized triumph over war, ways to contain the costs of post-colonial transitions, safety valves for periodic violence, protection against the straitjackets of parochial state interests.

That's the world West Africans and South Asians have the right to find when they escape privation and terror: safety and survival, if not wealth and welcome. But not any more. In today's camps in Guinea, the prevailing climate is indifference, abandonment and loss. Some 130,000 Liberians have lived on the camps' borrowed land for years, unable to return home and prohibited from making a life elsewhere. Nearly 330,000 Sierra Leoneans, too, have been stranded along a border with few prospects for resettlement. While diamond merchants and dictators prosper from war, aid workers stretch small budgets to feed women, orphans and the faltering communities of the displaced built from the ashes of neighboring combat. No one else seems to want them.

Even this seems a better fate than what Afghans anticipate from their neighbors. About 10,000 are marooned on small islands in the scorched riverbed border with Tajikistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans in Iran are again being asked to leave. Worse, additional hundreds of thousands of new refugees crowd Afghanistan's eastern border, victims of natural disaster, continuing brutal battles and Pakistan's frayed humanitarianism.

No money, no space, no patience--refugees are too often greeted by this ironic incantation, just before the door latch closes. After decades of fighting next door, Pakistan is fed up with the material and human cost of millions of refugees, many of whom have not been able to return home for 10 or 20 years. The fact that the government of Pakistan provides more support to war in Afghanistan than to refugees doesn't erase the force of its shrill argument: Refugees don't leave, humanitarianism doesn't always pay and if good fences don't make good neighbors, at least they preserve privacy.

These are the components of a curiously contradictory compassion fatigue that grips rich and poor nations alike. Just this month, Britain's home secretary called for the 1951 convention to be revised, presumably to contain flows of migrants into Europe. If this is the portent, worse can follow: lower borders within the European Union leave more bricks for higher walls surrounding it, and ample excuse for less fortunate states to follow similar exclusionary practices.

Most refugees venture no farther than equally poor countries next door, sometimes out of preference, more often because no other choices are available. Until now, they were relatively secure in their right to traverse those borders and could count on some protection--even if not prosperity--while waiting out the conflicts they fled. With rich donor states reluctant to accept more refugees, the best that others can hope for is a few more dollars to pay refugees to stay away.

It took years to craft a consensus on refugee protection; destroying it requires no time at all. Picking up the pieces could be complicated, indeed. It's a short public-policy walk from border security, states' rights and racism to the unraveling of the evolving global economy. In the thrill of high-technology investments and cross-border capital flows, globalists sometimes forget that the tenets of internationalism start with two basic rights: free association and free movement. These are the first principles of postwar politics and, crucially, postmodern economics. Without them, labor, money, ideas, goods and services are all captive to old-fashioned, outdated mercantilism. Without them, the poor will not escape poverty, the disenfranchised will not escape oppression and we will not thrive.

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