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World: Analysis From Washington--Shifting The Refugee Crisis

Washington, 21 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Refugee flows are declining across the world less because conditions have improved in the countries from which people wish to flee than because the countries to which they want to go are no longer as willing to take them in.

According to a report released this week by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, some 34 million people became refugees, asylum seekers or displaced persons in 1996, the lowest total since 1989.

Unfortunately,the reasons for this otherwise welcome decline are anything but encouraging for the future, this private watch-dog group reports.

On the one hand, part of the decline represents a series of events not likely to be repeated.

These include both the repatriation of some two million people displaced by communal violence in Africa and Afghanistan and an easing of displacements caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

But on the other hand, the decline reflects the increasing unwillingness of traditional havens for refugees to continue to absorb such flows.

According to the Committee's report, some 15 countries during the past year significantly restricted the ability of refugees to enter and remain on their territories. Among these were the United States and Germany, both of whom have welcomed refugees in the past.

These governments are simply responding to the concerns of their own citizens that refugees place an excessive burden on local taxpayers.

And in many cases, even as these countries have tightened restrictions on seeking refuge on their territories, the governments involved have remained generous in offering aid to refugees elsewhere.

As the Committee report makes clear, the United States, for example, continues to lead the world in its contributions to international refugee assistance even as it becomes more restrictive concerning those seeking entry to its territory.

Many people and governments will undoubtedly welcome the decline in the size of refugee flows. But to the extent that it simply reflects the fact that many people no longer have anywhere to go, the refugee crisis has not been ended, merely transformed.

First, it means that ever more people will have to suffer whatever conditions their governments impose upon them without a reasonable hope that they would be protected if they were to flee.

Given that and the current international opposition to any further secession, many governments will not unreasonably conclude that they will be able to behave even worse than they have in the past.

Second, opposition to such flows will have the effect of limiting the leavening diversity in many countries that has done so much to contribute to the dynamism of these states.

Every one of the countries that has tightened up on refugees in the past year has earlier benefitted from the influx of such people in a wide variety of ways, cultural, political and economic.

And third, these new restrictions on handling refugees also have a negative impact on the ability of the countries involved to give lectures to other states on issues like human rights and democratization.

The recipients of such advice are likely to conclude that they are being asked to behave not as those giving the advice do but as the advice givers would like others to see them.

Obviously, everyone would be better off if conditions in every country were so good that no one would want to leave.

But such a world does not yet exist, and consequently protecting the right of those subject to oppression to seek refuge abroad remains an important task.