The Year of Refugees: Displaced, destitute, desensitised

When dusk falls and there is just enough darkness to obscure the details of clothes and shoes, great gatherings of refugees shed the look of the present and become ageless, like scenes from history. On the Kosovo border in April, streams of families crossed the mountains on mules laden with woven panniers, like the victims of some great war of the middle ages.

Huddling in the ruins of their homes, the survivors of the Caracas mudslides live without plumbing or electricity - as the poor have lived in Venezuela for centuries.

Think of the scene at Blace in Macedonia, where tens of thousands of Albanians weltered in the muddy no man's land at the border crossing, and remember the word that was used over and again to describe their plight: "Biblical". They had lost their homes, their jobs, and their national identity, and now, to the onlookers, they almost seemed to have lost their connection with the present. The impression was inescapable, but it was an illusion.

For whether they were the victims of earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, or wars in Chechnya or East Timor, 1999 was the year of refugees. No group of people was more characteristic of the world this year, and never before has their plight been more complex.

Twenty years ago, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had 2.5 million people to worry about; today the number is 21 million, including refugees, those (like the Albanians in Kosovo) recently returned to their homes, and other displaced and uprooted people.

The number was much the same last year and the year before, but rarely has there been such vast and violent refugee activity as in 1999. In the last nine months alone, one million Albanians fled, and then returned, to Kosovo, driving out 200,000 Serbs and gypsies.

In East Timor, most of the territory's 800,000 people were forced out of their homes by the Indonesian army and its militias.

Now, more than 200,000 Chechens will spend the winter dispersed around the Caucasus, the victims of a third, and perhaps the most intractable secessionist struggle, while in Venezuela, 400,000 people are without shelter after their homes were swept away in a few hours of rain.

The world of a university professor in Pristina and a poor coffee farmer in Timor could hardly be further apart, but as refugees the two had much in common.

In the early years of the Cold War, most of the world's refugees were victims of ideology, fleeing the persecution of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe.

In the 1960s, decolonisation and the proxy struggles of the Cold War created a new wave of the displaced, most of them in Africa.

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are in a new era, that of small, internal wars in which refugees have taken on a new and crucial role. They are no longer marginal players, the casual by-products of conflict and political difference. In Kosovo, Timor - and to a lesser extent in Chechnya - they were at the centre of the crisis, serving not just as victims, but as moral justification, and even as weapons.

In large enough numbers, refugees are a powerful force and dangerous, both to those who displace them and those who take them in. No one understood the power of refugees, or gambled more cynically with them, than Slobodan Milosevic, although like most gamblers he lost as much as he gained.

As the NATO planes bombed the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo, he regulated the flow of fleeing Albanians like a tap, first inundating the border crossing at Blace then, when the international community had got to grips with the situation there, driving the refugees through narrower and more inaccessible bottlenecks along Kosovo's mountainous border with Albania and Macedonia.

One had only to see the sadistic anger of the Macedonian border guards at Blace, or the unease of Macedonian politicians, to understand the power of this weapon turned upon a young, struggling country with ethnic instability of its own. But the Macedonian government used the refugees in its turn, to pressure the NATO allies for more economic aid and for early entry into the EU.

For the uneasy NATO alliance, divided between convinced advocates of the bombing campaign and more nervous states like Greece and Italy, the plight of the displaced provided powerful moral justification for the whole enterprise. If the Yugoslav army had dug in, and sat tight, and let the Kosovo Albanians be, how long would NATO unity have lasted?

The risks of creating humanitarian catastrophe were illustrated in East Timor, a far less rational and comprehensible conflict. For 24 years, the world had colluded in the Indonesian occupation, reacting with minimal disapproval when evidence emerged of atrocities, and doing its best to avoid seeing the obvious. But in September, after the territory's overwhelming vote for independence, a situation emerged which even the most compromised Western governments could not ignore. As the Indonesian army and militias set about their destruction, the UN acted with unprecedented speed - within less than three weeks, the Australian-led international force was on the ground and order was being restored.

The success of the Timor operation, and NATO's prompt work in constructing the camps in Macedonia, illustrate another characteristic of modern refugee crises - that the people best equipped to help them fast are not the aid organisations, but modern armies. In the early weeks of the Kosovo crisis, the UNHCR flailed amid funding difficulties and red tape. Unencumbered by such considerations, it was NATO which put up the tents and flew in aid directly, with a precision and effectiveness that it failed to bring to its bombing campaign. To speak of "success" in such operations is misleading, for the fact of their being needed is evidence of political and diplomatic failure.

"This may sound old-fashioned," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, said recently, "but rather than face the excruciating dilemmas of `human- itarian intervention', I believe that political and diplomatic action deserve a fuller chance."

Like every refugee crisis in history, the crises of 1999 came about as the result of human action and inaction, and for the individual victims the results were the same as they have always been.

Now, as 1,000 years ago, it is the young, old and weak who suffer most. In 1999, no less than in 1939, the trauma of displacement lingers long after peace and shelter have been restored. In that sense, however complex and politicised refugee crises have become, the plight of their victims is timeless.

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