Refugees move up the agenda

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The Independent Online
THE IMAGES are at once familiar and unfamiliar to a younger generation that recalls them only through film and prose: Omaha Beach, D- Day, young servicemen and women in uniform dancing in celebration to the music of Glenn Miller's band. Reliving these images today, on the 50th anniversary celebration, conjures up so much that is past but also similar.

Rebuilding a world ravaged by holocaust, war and economic devastation was the next critical step. With incredible leadership, new organisations were built, rules were agreed, economic confederations were founded, and the hapless thousands left homeless were channelled into new directions. Does this have a familiar ring?

Today, the building and rebuilding continue with the efforts to create a new World Trade Organisation, a greater European Union, a revamped OECD, a new, improved Nato and UN, and regional economic groupings that encompass Asia.

The rules that are being agreed are more broadly international in scope, as the global economy seeks the means to bring competition policy into line, to harness international financial flows, and to harmonise discordant regimes.

The end of the Cold War is not unlike the aftermath of the Second World War, in that much is up for grabs. Now, as then, leadership will make the difference. Ironically, as world leaders convene this month to commemorate D-Day and meet next month at the Group of Seven's annual economic summit, one of the key problems under discussion will echo talks almost 50 years ago on the status of refugees.

Expect to hear a lot over the next two months on problems and programmes for the refugees who are sloshing about the world in record numbers, creating a major challenge to the international economy. Whether they be from Haiti, Mexico, Somalia, Turkey, Bosnia, Algeria, Russia or China, these willing and unwilling migrants are having a global effect as pronounced as trade and finance flows and the environment.

After a slow start in July 1991, the G7 nations are finally putting this issue on the front burner. A senior British official said that the problems of refugees would dominate the G7 meetings in July.

By choice or by chance, an estimated 80 million people now live outside their country of citizenship. This means that a population equal to that of Germany floats about freely as immigrants, refugees or asylum-seekers, both legal and illegal.

US intelligence officials are so concerned by the trend that while President Clinton was attending ceremonies in Europe, they gave a background briefing on the new menace posed by China.

Using backdoor channels through loose immigration controls in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Chinese are emigrating illegally to the US and other countries.

This huge migration is part of a massive smuggling operation that US officials became aware of only six months ago. A senior US official told the Washington Post: 'We have become aware of a huge human warehousing operation that holds tens of thousands of aliens at various points along the pipeline, often for months at a time.'

Reaching the final destination can take two years or more. Meanwhile, as many as 60,000 Chinese now live illegally in Moscow, for example, awaiting air transport to the US and elsewhere. Some of the documented stops along the way for these smuggling operations include Bangkok, New Delhi, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Madrid, London and New York. The numbers are huge and the eventual economic costs are also expected to be huge.

However, the Clinton administration has so far concentrated its efforts on Mexico, because of the great political agitation in California over the high costs of illegal immigration and political refugees from Central and Latin America.

Meanwhile, the state of Florida has demanded emergency federal funding to help it cope with the economic strains imposed by Haitian and Cuban refugees.

Add to this Europe's immigration crisis, and the international scope of the problem comes more into focus. France and Germany, for example, are struggling to integrate guestworkers and their children even as unprecedented newcomers from the South ahd East demand entrance.

For the first time all the major OECD countries are net immigration areas despite vigorous efforts in some to keep newcomers out. Despite a directive to the OECD in 1991 to search for strategies that would keep migrants at home, no clear path has been agreed. Complicating the issue is the very real possibility that the world trading system will break into regional blocs that will result in regional immigration policies.

What can the industrial nations do? At the simplest humanitarian level, they can share the burden of providing initial aid and safe harbour to refugees. Beyond that, the problem is much more difficult to solve.

A good start would be to admit that there is a global problem and that it cannot be resolved by a single cure such as a new development plan or immigration category.

A multi-pronged approach is called for, not least one that takes a hard look at the industrial countries themselves and why they pull in so much immigration.