Cuba flood swamps the cash calculation

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AND STILL they come in their thousands. The human tidal wave of Cuban refugees, which slowed briefly in response to stormy seas, is again building momentum.

They come in makeshift rafts, in home-made craft propelled by gerry-rigged motors stolen from old refrigerators, in whatever will float. Like so much flotsam and jetsam, they are plucked from the seas by an armada of US Navy and Coast Guard vessels, whose main mission is to stop them reaching Florida's shores.

Sick, sunburnt and dehydrated, they are carted off to a small sliver of the island home they sought to escape, to the no-man's land of the US-operated Guantanamo Bay naval station where 14,500 Haitians await them. The question no one really wants to ask hangs unanswered over the whole operation: how much will it cost?

Florida had already declared an 'immigration crisis' weeks before the daily refugee count swelled into the thousands. Beleaguered state officials appealed for federal emergency funds to help pay the costs of sheltering, medically screening and transporting large groups of refugees to relocation centres. Since January, more than 6,500 Cubans have made their way to the US, most of them to Florida. This was the tally before the floodgates opened last week.

In Dade County, where Cuban refugees have traditionally settled, officials applied for housing, healthcare and public safety funds from a dollars 35m ( pounds 22m) federal fund that is set to increase soon to dollars 75m. Even this is a drop in the bucket. Dade County officials can document immigration-related costs of dollars 100m since 1990. For all of Florida, immigration-related costs have soared to dollars 1bn over the past few years.

Before the Cubans, there were Haitians who took to the seas in massive numbers seeking political and economic asylum in the US. By land, Mexicans, Salvadorians and Chileans made a similar trek. Recently, US intelligence officials uncovered a huge, illegal operation to bring thousands of Chinese economic refugees into the US via Russia, Brazil and other loosely controlled ports of call.

Meanwhile, thousands of Vietnamese reside in Thailand, a 'waiting-room' country, hoping for resettlement in the US. And these are only the refugee / migration problems of the US. The end of the Cold War has highlighted what many agree is one of the great international challenges of the 1990s: voluntary and involuntary migration. Whether it be thousands of Rwandans crowding into Zaire, or Croatians and Muslims fleeing into Austria, or Turkish guest workers in Germany, or Romanians, Slovakians and Russians seeking the bright lights of London and Paris, the fact remains that migration is projected to be greater even than in the early decades after the Second World War. Policy questions as crude as 'how much will it cost' are soon overtaken by the realisation that there is no simple or single cure. This the Clinton administration is learning the hard way. Having reversed a 28-year policy of accepting Cuban refugees, the administration now faces some very costly problems. Over the past six days, an estimated 13,000 Cubans have been picked up at sea and shipped to Guantanamo Bay where they are to be housed in tented refugee camps along with Haitians.

The Pentagon estimates that start-up costs will be dollars 100m, assuming that the tent cities are expanded to accommodate a maximum of 45,000 refugees. The continuing cost of the refugee camps will be about dollars 20m a month. Even this greatly underestimates total expenses, as there are no reliable estimates from the Pentagon and the Coast Guard on the costs of operating ships and other equipment involved in the refugee operation.

For example, the Coast Guard currently has 60 vessels of varying size in the 12 to 15- mile range off the coast of Cuba in addition to 14 support aircraft, including helicopters. The Navy has deployed 10 vessels, mostly frigates, with three more on the way plus spotter aircraft. In total, almost 9,000 Coast Guard and Navy personnel are at sea at the moment.

This is not going to be cheap. Coast Guard officials said they incurred additional costs of dollars 6m to dollars 8m during the similar two-month Haitian operation. The Defense Department estimated that the military spent about dollars 220m on the Haitian operation during the same two-month period. Small wonder that top Pentagon officials last week warned the military that major weapons systems were about to be cut. The challenges of the 1990s are considerably more immediate than Ronald Reagan's Star Wars.

Of course, there are additional complexities related to this fragile migra-system which links world economies. President Clinton recognised one of them when he prohibited as a punitive measure cash remittances from US-based Cubans that have been keeping Fidel Castro's economy afloat. Philip Martin of the University of California estimates that the 80 million people who now live outside their country of citizenship send home about dollars 67bn annually, a figure which is greater than total official development assistance.

This means that not only Cuba but countries as diverse as Bangladesh and the former Yugoslavia depend on this labour as their principal source of foreign exchange. Yet another complication for policymakers to ponder.