War and terror make 27 million homeless

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Diplomatic Editor

A record total of 27 million people around the world have fled their homes because of war and persecution, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, said yesterday as she called for new political thinking to prevent conflicts and to deal with the changing character of war and displacement, as some states disintegrate and others pursue policies of ethnic chauvinism.

"We live in a sophisticated world but we are responding in a patchy and short-sighted way," said Mrs Ogata, introducing a report by the UNHCR. Among the facts and figures collected last year were:

8 Four countries - Germany, Pakistan, Iran and Zaire - are each hosting more than a million refugees and 28 nations are coping with more than 100,000 people.

8 The three countries with the most refugees are Afghanistan, Rwanda and Liberia, with 2.74 million Afghans still living as refugees 16 years after the Soviet Union invaded, and 2.26 million Rwandans in exile.

8 Germany has taken in the greatest number (700,000) from the former Yugoslavia granted "temporary protection" in other European countries, while only a fraction are in Britain.

8 World-wide, there are more refugees in Africa, 6.75 million, than in any other continent.

The UNHCR's most important message is not one of figures but trends. The refugee agency, with a $1.3bn budget, has had to alter definitions of those in need as it copes with the the end of the Cold War.

Traditionally, a refugee was somebody who crossed an international border and sought asylum in another state, such as Palestinians who fled to Jordan and Lebanon in 1948. But civil conflicts and the breakup of such states as Somalia and Yugoslavia has created a new category of victim, christened named "internally displaced persons", people trapped within their own borders but in need.

The repercussions of such catastrophes challenge the vintage Cold War doctrine that the outside world cannot intervene in the affairs of nation states. The UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has admitted that "the time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty has passed". The breakdown was recognised when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 688 in 1991, demanding that Iraq allow "immediate access" by international humanitarian organisations. But the members of the UN have not faced up to the difficult political consequences of this action.

Mrs Ogata cited the mass murders and ethnic conflict in Rwanda as a textbook case of the need for prevention.

"What might have happened if the estimated $2bn spent on refugee relief during the first two weeks of the emergency had been devoted to keeping the peace, protecting human rights and promoting development in the period which preceded the exodus?" the report asked. The UNHCR wants to see fewer expensive "quick fix" solutions and a greater long-term commitment to preventive diplomacy.

There is growing resistance in many Third World countries to any notion that the industrialised nations can determine a "right to intervene" based on principles which may not be universally agreed. "The Western concept of human rights continues to be strongly challenged by both the Islamic states and many countries in east Asia, where primary emphasis is placed on social order, political stability and economic growth," the report noted.

One reason for political inaction is that several refugee crises are the results of policies followed by the rival blocs in the Cold War. "The world's more powerful states were able to take advantage of refugee movements by arming and training some of the people concerned and using them to destabilise the government within their homeland," the UNHCR said, pointing to Afghanistan, Angola and central America.

Then there are countries like Somalia, where the absence of superpower equilibrium created a vacuum swiftly filled by tribal or ethnic violence. In Yugoslavia, the UNHCR's most testing assignment, three million people have been displaced by ethnic cleansing and war.

"Similar forces are at work in the former Soviet Union, particularly the Caucasian republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where the disappearance of the Communist state apparatus and the concomitant struggle for power and territory has uprooted more than two million people," the report said.