Human Rights: Real wars hot up as the Cold one thaws

Marcus Tanner believes the end of the Cold War is a big factor behind the increase in refugee numbers
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Refugees play an integral part in the story of the fight to create and then maintain global standards on human rights. In the Universal Declaration, Article 14 states: "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution".

The UN 1951 convention on the status of refugees transcribed the ideals raised in the Declaration into legal obligations and together with the 1967 Protocol they created a comprehensive bill of refugee rights which has been ratified by 136 governments. The results give some cause for modest celebration.

"Millions have been granted asylum and ultimately afforded the right to return home in safety and dignity," said Lyndall Sachs, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in London. "States have continued to offer sanctuary to millions of victims of persecution and conflict."

But if the doors of some states do still remain open to refugees, others are closing fast and there is no doubt that the general trend is towards hauling up the drawbridges, at a time when the world's crisis over refugees has never been more acute.

A massive rise in refugee numbers the world over is, ironically, the unwitting result of the end of Cold War rivalry between the superpowers. While the world was divided into two giant fiefdoms there were few big population displacements. Indeed, whole countries behind the so-called Iron Curtain spent four decades hermetically sealed off from the world.

The end of the Cold War and the relaxation of tension between the big powers has allowed dozens of simmering, small-scale conflicts between states to blow up - conflicts that once would have been restrained by one of the two superpowers.

In the Balkans, which lay on the fault line between the old eastern and western blocs, conflicts between the five new independent states that have risen from the ashes of Yugoslavia have produced by far the biggest number of refugees from any European state. Of the four-and-a-half million inhabitants of Bosnia alone, 620,000 are refugees, mostly located in Yugoslavia and other European countries.

This pattern of fragmentation and conflict has been replicated in several continents and it helps to explain why over half a century the total number of refugees has climbed from one-and-a-half million in 1951 to 13 million today.

Mass exoduses of civilians have taken place in Afghanistan and Iraq in Asia Minor; in Mozambique, Liberia and Guinea Bissau in Africa; in Bosnia and Kosovo in Europe, and in Haiti in Central America.

The popular belief in the West is that the rich and relatively stable societies of Europe and North America are the main destinations of all the victims of these predominantly Third World conflicts.

In fact, although the number of refugees seeking asylum in the West is rising each year - and is starting to affect countries like Ireland, which until recently had very few refugees - by far the biggest number of refugees are located in the poorest countries, countries that can least afford the burden.

This is because most refugees have sought refuge in the next-door state. Most of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees, for example, have moved to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. And of Africa's 3.4 million refugees, the largest group are 524,000 Somalis, most of whom have fled to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. With 2.9 million refugees, wealthy Europe comes only third in the continental refugee stakes, well below Asia and Africa, with fewer than a quarter of the world's refugees. Britain's share is put at around 200,000. America and Canada have only 668,000 refugees.

When the world's total refugee population is combined with more than 37 million people who have been displaced by war or famine within their own state borders, it means about one in every 225 people in the world has been forced to flee their home.

One inevitable result of this growth in the number of people seeking asylum almost everywhere has been "refugee fatigue", a phenomenon known in our own continent as a "Fortress Europe" mentality. Lyndall Sachs says: "There are worrying signs that the hands outstretched to help are now being used to push people back."

More and more states are sealing their borders and refusing entry to those fleeing conflict. Other states that are unable to control their borders in this way have seen vicious attacks on asylum-seekers.

Asia and Africa have witnessed the most brutal expulsions of refugees and attacks on refugee camps. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, for example, millions were forced out of Rwanda into Zaire - itself convulsed by civil war - only to be forced back again last year amid scenes of appalling bloodshed and killing.

According to the UNHCR, more refugee lives have been lost during the last four years than at any time since the end of World War Two.

No such mass killings or pogroms await the minority of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. But images of refugees have become so common in the media that at a popular level the very term refugee now evokes far less sympathy than it once did.

In Germany, which has absorbed the highest number of refugees in Europe, and even in such famously tolerant havens as the Scandinavian countries, refugee houses have been attacked and burned down.

While the governments are mainly honouring their global obligations, asylum policy throughout Europe is increasingly framed as an issue of national security and most countries are constantly adding to legislation to limit the ability of so-called "illegals" to cross their borders.

This growing "Fortress Europe" mentality can have tragic side-effects.

More and more asylum-seekers are resorting to traffickers who smuggle them across state borders, often in a hair-raising manner and frequently at great risk to those seeking safety.

Fifty years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the world's refugee body believes we in the West need to rediscover a sense of the intrinsic value to our societies of refugees, and then balance that against the costs we pay to support them.

Over the centuries asylum- seekers have enriched this country, from the Huguenot merchants and artisans from 17th century France to the Jewish artists, scientists and businessmen who fled the pogroms of 19th century Tsarist Russia.

Lyndall Sachs says: "To look at it in terms of cost alone ignores the enormous contribution refugees make economically, socially and politically to countries of asylum.

"Where would we be without Sigmund Freud or the millions of others who repay the hospitality by being loyal hard working citizens."

UNHCR's Web site can be found at: