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The international refugee regime: stretched to the limit?

International institutions traditionally have had difficulty addressing refugee problems, particularly during times of great disorder and structural change within world politics -- for example, during the First World War when multinational states and empires disintegrated and after the Second World War when the global structure shifted from a multipolar to a bipolar system. Over 70 years ago, the world community established an international refugee regime(1) to regularize the status and control of stateless people in Europe. Since then, international laws specifying refugees as a unique category of human rights victims to whom special protection and benefits should be accorded have been signed and ratified by over a hundred states and enforced for several decades.

Like international institutions, however, states also have been traditionally ambivalent about international cooperation over refugee issues. On the one hand, states have a fundamental, self-serving interest in quickly resolving refugee crises: Refugee movements create domestic instability, generate inter-state tension and threaten international security.(2) Thus, states created the international refugee regime prompted not by purely altruistic motives, but by a desire to promote regional and international stability and to support functions which serve the interests of governments -- namely, burden sharing and coordinating policies regarding the treatment of refugees.

On the other hand, state independence is also an issue: States often are unwilling to yield authority to international refugee agencies and institutions and consequently, impose considerable financial and political limitations on their activities. For example, the first intergovernmental activities on behalf of refugees during the interwar period (1921-1943) were limited to specific groups of European refugees. The series of international organizations created to deal with these situations possessed limited mandates of short duration. Although governments met in the early cold war period (1949-1951) to create the contemporary international refugee regime(3) and formulate rules and decision making procedures, they sought to limit once again the regime's responsibilities in the context of the emerging global refugee problem. The great powers were unwilling to commit themselves to indefinite financial costs and large resettlement programs.

Nonetheless, despite state reservations, significant intergovernmental collaboration on the refugee issue did in fact occur, and the responsibilities accorded to the international refugee regime steadily expanded, with assistance and protection granted to a progressively larger number of refugees. In the post-Cold War era, however, the number of displaced people in situations of internal conflict, state disintegration and environmental degradation is growing rapidly. The refugee regime -- ill-equipped to address the causes of a crisis, the numbers caught up in it or its consequences -- is once more in danger of being overwhelmed.

Having presented an overview, this article examines the dynamics of regime change through the five periods during which the international refugee regime confronted significant challenges to its authority and adapted to those specific needs: the interwar period; the immediate post-Second World War era; the period of expansion into the Third World during the late 1950s through most of the 1970s; the decade of the 1980s, when the regime faced long-standing refugee problems resulting from superpower involvement in regional conflicts; and finally, the post-Cold War era, during which internal displacements and repatriations in situations of civil conflict assume primary importance for international organizations and governments. Next, this article analyzes the characteristics of many of today's displacements, the challenges they pose to the international refugee regime and the kinds of policy responses required -- not only to alleviate human suffering, but also to contribute to greater stability and security in the future. Finally, the article concludes with suggestions for new alliances and new actors for forging a way through the present crisis.


The Interwar Refugee Regime

The international refugee regime came into existence in the aftermath of the First World War, when governments were confronted by massive numbers of homeless people devastated by the war and the breakup of multi-ethnic empires, mainly in Europe and Asia. Millions of uprooted people, rendered stateless by their governments, without national passports and, therefore, without identification or protection, wandered outside their home countries, searching for refuge. Fearing huge flows of displaced people, European governments rushed to erect protective barriers, close borders and expel thousands of individuals across national frontiers.(4) Such government reaction resulted in the creation of large refugee populations which threatened regional security in Europe and compromised the limited resources of private or public international agencies and individual European governments.

To reduce this source of interstate tension by actually addressing the problem of refugees, in 1921, Western governments established the first multilateral coordinating mechanism for refugees, the High Commissioner for Refugees, endowed with specific responsibilities for Russian and later for Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Armenian refugees. In the 1930s, the major European governments reached international agreements to protect refugees fleeing from the disintegrating Russian and Ottoman Empires. In later years, these governments extended the agreements to include those fleeing Germany and Austria. Such cooperative achievements were largely the individual work of the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, who proved to be a highly innovative and successful advocate for refugees.(5)

Although still under the aegis of the League of Nations, the international response to refugees prior to the Second World War did not constitute an effective regime. Governments throughout this period, fearing pressure to recognize political dissidents of any state by a supragovernmental authority, refrained from adopting a universal definition of "refugee." Instead, Western governments designated only specific national groups as refugees, providing them with only minimal protection and keeping the mandate of the High Commissioner deliberately narrow. As the League's political effectiveness and credibility declined -- particularly after the withdrawal of Germany, Japan and Italy from its membership and after its failure to resolve the Manchurian and Ethiopian conflicts during the 1930s -- its competence to deal with refugee problems also decreased.(6)

The crucial impediment to genuine international cooperation towards refugees was the lack of any consistent or coherent international commitment to resolving refugee problems, a condition reflected in three beliefs held by almost every Western nation, particularly during the years of the Great Depression: First, they believed that tight fiscal constraints and high unemployment levels limited any humanitarian initiatives on behalf of refugees; second, that no particular foreign policy benefits would accrue from either putting political and moral pressure on refugee-generating countries, or accepting their unwanted dissidents and minority groups; and third, that national interests were best served through rigid limits on immigration.

These views prevailed in the United States, Canada and Australia, despite each country's having accepted a substantial majority of the world's emigrants, and having acted as safety nets for Europe's forced migrants until the First World War. After the war, however, governmental responses to pleas from public and private international refugee organizations for additional resettlement locations for the world's persecuted conspicuously lacked generosity.(7) Ultimately, the interwar refugee regime proved to be totally ineffective in responding to the Holocaust and other refugee crises facing the international community.

The Second World War displaced millions of people. At first, international efforts to resolve the postwar refugee problem followed the pattern set in the interwar period: They were temporary measures aimed at resolving an emergency situation. To this end, the Big Four set up in 1943 an intergovernmental body, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA),(8) whose principal function was to promote and oversee the repatriation of the millions of displaced people under Allied control. UNRRA was in no sense, however, a refugee organization: only incidently did it aid those refugees with fears of political persecution. Although it was authorized to give temporary relief to those under its care, it was not empowered in any way to arrange for the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons to third countries. Moreover, in accord with the terms of the February 1945 Yalta agreements and in response to Soviet pressures, UNRRA played an active part in Europe in the forcible repatriation of large numbers of people, many of whom had asserted fear of persecution.(9)

Early Post-Second World War. The Origins of the Contemporary International Refugee Regime

The contemporary international approach to refugee problems emerged fully only after UNRRA was abolished in 1945. Despite adamant opposition from the Soviet Union, Western governments undertook new initiatives to resettle Eastern European refugees. In 1947, the Western powers committed themselves to the creation of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which focused on resettling the remaining refugees and displaced persons created by the war and its aftermath.(10) With the establishment of IRO, the international community adopted, for the first time, a universal definition of refugee based on "persecution or fear of persecution" on the grounds of race, religion, nationality or political opinion. In doing so, Western powers hoped that IRO would achieve two goals: First, to resolve effectively situations with potential to destabilize already-weakened European economies attempting to recover from the ruins of war, and second, to "internationalize" the refugee problem by distributing refugees and refugee costs among a number of North and South American and Western European nations, as well as Australasia and a number of African countries. As such, IRO served the interests of occupied Germany and Western European countries which were concerned about hosting refugee populations. The principal architect of the postwar refugee regime, the United States, also used IRO to its advantage by underwriting over two-thirds of its costs, thereby exercising exclusive control over its leadership.

The IRO proved to be an extremely expensive operation, and the United States and most of its Western allies became leery of making any new open-ended financial commitments to refugees. Events in India, Korea, China and Palestine, as well as along the perimeter of the Iron Curtain, had all created new refugees by the millions, convincing American and other Western officials that there was no end in sight to the world refugee problem. Unwilling to pledge unlimited support to refugees, Western governments now actively opposed the United Nations committing itself to unspecified and future responsibilities.

The establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950 reflected the political and strategic interests of the European powers and, specifically, the United States. By placing severe limitations on UNHCR's functional scope and authority, the United States and its Western allies sustained their desire to create an international refugee agency that would neither pose a threat to their national sovereignty nor impose new financial obligations on them.(11)

The United States was the only nation capable of providing the political and financial support to make the international refugee regime function effectively. At the same time, the United States' increasing preoccupation with postwar European foreign policy and the rapidly developing Cold War critically affected the lens through which that country viewed refugee policy. United States policy makers began to consider refugee issues within the same policy framework as national security. To them, the most important aspects of the newly formed refugee regime were maintaining international attention devoted to refugees from communist countries and minimizing international appeals for assistance funds to refugees.(12) To this end, the United States sought to limit severely the functional scope and independent authority of UNHCR and instead created two new U.S.-led organizations: the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the U.S. Escapee Program, both programs parallel to and outside the purview of the United Nations.

Specially created U.N. agencies, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency, for example, exclusively handled refugee populations located in such strategic conflict areas as the Middle East and Korea -- areas in which the United States and its allies were also deeply involved. The United States funded these organizations much more generously than it did UNHCR, and for a time these organizations provided the United States with a pretext for withholding financial support from the U.N.-based refugee regime.

The consequences of such U.S. actions were, for UNHCR, profound. The denial of American financial and diplomatic support directly affected the organization's ability to define an independent role and to implement its goals. Even five years after its founding and despite large refugee flows around the world, UNHCR remained small and relegated simply to providing legal protection for displaced persons not already resettled by IRO. Eventually, however, through its rapid response to the first major Cold War refugee crisis that erupted with the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, UNHCR overcame U.S. opposition and, in effect, became perceived as being useful to American foreign policy interests. The Hungarian crisis presented UNHCR with the opportunity to demonstrate that it was the only agency capable of coordinating both international refugee relief and the collection of funds for emergency material assistance. To extend aid to fleeing Hungarians, the organization made no attempt to judge individual motives for flight but approved all Hungarians in Austria and Yugoslavia as prima facie refugees. With the Hungarian operation, the funding capacities and operational services of UNHCR grew; the High Commissioner, August Lindt, won the confidence of both the United States and communist authorities in the Eastern bloc for his repatriation efforts; and UNHCR became the centerpiece of the international refugee regime.

Organizational Expansion into the Third World

The third period of organizational growth for the international refugee regime came during the 20-year period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, when the rules, operational capacity and geographic outreach of the international refugee regime expanded due to the pressures, demands and burdens placed upon it by refugee crises in the third world. For UNCHR, this was a period of organizational take-off as it evolved into a firmly established organization with a broader mandate and capacity to provide material assistance on a global level to a greater number of people in refugee and refugee-like situations.(13)

During the late 1950s, as outflows of refugees from Eastern Europe waned, the international refugee regime shifted its focus to the third world. With rapid decolonization, the character of refugee problems changed, and the regime came under mounting pressure to adapt its programs and policies to give greater priority to third world refugees. Anticolonial insurgency, as well as post-independence civil strife and warfare in Africa, for example, generated vast numbers of refugees.(14) They typically arrived in large groups, were destitute and in need of a wide variety of special kinds of emergency assistance. The central concern regarding the international refugee regime was its ability to respond effectively to these new kinds of refugees and its applicability to third world states in dealing with these problems. In their attempt to respond effectively to these new refugee groups, signatories to the international refugee instruments were compelled to adjust the geographical and timeline limits of the refugee definition contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention,(15) expand the assistance capacities of the High Commissioner and reorient the programs and priorities of the regime from Europe to the third world.

Moreover, the international refugee regime faced profound political problems arising from the very nature of the new refugee flows. In many cases, refugee situations directly involved or were created by either the interests of the Western colonial powers -- who were also among the founding members of the international refugee regime -- or internal strife and ethnic conflict in newly independent states. Recognizing the political embarrassment that refugee problems caused colonial powers and countries of origin, Western states began to turn increasingly to UNHCR to address refugee situations. Western states, particularly former colonial powers, simply adjusted the rules of the regime to fit the new situation, while sidestepping potential political conflicts of interest. Whenever refugee situations appeared with political dynamics and problems which did not correspond with those of the European situation, were not covered in the UNHCR Statute or involved one or more of the Western powers, the U.N. General Assembly broadened the scope of UNHCR authority for action.(16)

Thus, for the next two decades, Western governments were willing to turn to UNHCR whenever its services could be usefully applied to meet the needs of these new and different groups of refugees and displaced persons. Through a series of resolutions, conventions and declarations, the definition of refugee was broadened considerably in a de facto manner.(17) The international refugee regime was now empowered to provide assistance to the vast majority of the world's refugees and displaced persons without having to make individual determinations of their eligibility.

Western governments were willing politically and financially to support UNHCR's operational expansion into the developing world because international action on the refugee issue was also now viewed as a way to deal with potential sources of instability in the third world. During the 1960s and 1970s the Cold War extended beyond Europe into parts of the third world. Both the East and West vied for influence in Africa and Asia and, at the same time, tried to minimize the ability of their ideological opponent gaining political advantage in these regions. Western governments began to perceive refugee situations in developing countries as sources of instability which the Soviet Union could exploit for its own advantage in extending communism in the third world. In the face of an escalating Cold War struggle, Western governments came to perceive assistance to refugees as a central part of their foreign policies towards newly independent states, thus using foreign aid as one of the principal tools in this East-West struggle for influence. Governments made little distinction between military aid, development assistance and refugee relief aid.(18) More importantly, because UNHCR was a donor-dependent organization, possessing no communist member states and being dominated by the West, there was little risk of multilateral refugee aid being used in ways unacceptable to the principal donor governments.(19)

At a time when the majority of the world's refugees originated and stayed in the third world, Western states had little difficulty in extending the regime's rules to include a much broader category of refugees. These states were not in danger of confronting masses of third world arrivals and, therefore, could avoid the question of whether these groups were in fact formally within the High Commissioner's mandate. Thus, the refugee situation evolved into one characterized by a lack of state consensus on a single refugee definition and requiring multiple definitions for multiple purposes. During the 1960s and 1970s, this pragmatic and principally non-legalistic approach served the interests of the international community and the vast majority of the world's refugees. The inherent inadequacies of these vastly different approaches, however, became apparent by the 1980s when deteriorating political conditions in the third world not only generated, but also pushed increasing numbers of refugees northward to claim political asylum in industrialized nations.

The 1980s: Dealing with Refugee Outflows from Superpower Rivalry and Regional Conflicts

Until the late 1970s, the relatively liberal attitude of most states and their willingness to accept additional responsibilities to assist refugees and strengthen measures to protect them characterized the post-second World War regime. During the 1980s, however, states within the regime began to develop not only restrictive but also conflicting policies regarding the refugee issue.(20) In addition, despite its phenomenal organizational growth during the 1970s,(21) the international refugee regime still fell short in addressing the new and seemingly intractable refugee problems of the decade.

The intensification of the Cold War during the 1980s shifted the structure of the bipolar conflict: Both established third world governments and their opposing political forces collected external Western patrons and enjoyed relatively easy access to weapons. As a result, internal wars in Indochina, Afghanistan, Central America, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa became protracted and debilitating affairs. Such conflicts perpetuated endemic violence which, in turn, generated large waves of refugees.(22)

In light of such developments, during the 1980s, long-term care and maintenance in enclosed camps for the majority of refugees fleeing regional conflicts in Africa, Asia and Central America characterized the global refugee relief situation. The international community failed to devise comprehensive or long-term political solutions or to provide any alternatives to prolonged camp existence. At the same time, a growing number of Third World refugees appeared on the doorsteps of Western countries to seek asylum. Unlike in earlier periods, these refugees were no longer confined to their regions of origin, and now travelled directly to Western countries by air transport.

Refugees' Problems in the Post-Cold War Era

The 1990s represent a new era for refugees.(23) The end of the Cold War brought about major changes in the general pattern of refugee emergencies and challenges posed to the international refugee regime in providing relief and protection.(24) Most major refugee crises of the 1990s have been triggered by internal conflicts in which ethnic identity is a prominent element in both the goals and methods of adversaries. The number of wars involving secession and state formation are increasing. In such conflicts, civilians are often used as weapons and targets in warfare, and large-scale displacements comprise a political strategy in claiming control over territory.(25) Refugee movements are more likely the result of ethnic, communal and religious conflicts -- fueled by the increasing availability of arms, due to the breakup of the Cold War -- as well as of sharp socio-economic divisions and human rights abuses. UNHCR must confront refugee emergencies in rapid, sometimes overlapping, succession. Refugee crises in Iraq, Bosnia, Croatia, Kenya, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Caucasus, Tajikistan, Benin, Ghana, Rwanda and Burundi strain the capacities of the organization almost to the breaking point. At the same time, UNHCR is trying to resolve the long-standing refugee problems of the previous decade primarily through repatriation in the context of continuing instability and insecurity.

It is time for a major debate about how the United Nations, regional bodies and states can effectively intervene in internal conflicts and humanitarian emergencies.(26) The most difficult political and humanitarian questions confronting the international community in the 1990s are how governments and international organizations can intervene to prevent refugee flights within countries or across international borders; how they can provide assistance and protection to internally displaced people when their own governments object to such intervention as an infringement of sovereignty; or, when, as in Somalia, Liberia, Haiti or Bosnia, it is impossible to determine the legitimate government or authority in the country. The most immediate short-term problem for international agencies is to determine when and how repatriation and reintegration are most appropriate, particularly as some past regional conflicts in Central America, Indochina and Africa subside.

The Challenges Facing UNHCR: Institutional Constraints and Potential Problems

For the past 40 years, UNHCR has worked with people fleeing to countries of asylum where they require protection and assistance. UNHCR staff focused their activities on assisting refugees in camps and on negotiating with host governments for support. UNHCR assisted refugees on the assumption that once the conflict had ended, the refugees would return home and the old socio-political and territorial order would be re-established. Internally displaced persons were aided only in so far as home governments allowed it.

Since the end of the Cold War, UNHCR has adopted new criteria in serving refugee populations: Now, UNHCR focuses on meeting the immediate needs of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people who live in conditions of inter-communal violence, shifting borders and on-going conflict. In countries of asylum across the world, UNHCR has extensive experience in aiding refugees on the basis of its mandate and well-defined international refugee instruments. But in countries undergoing civil wars, UNHCR staff find themselves not only working with governments, but also with opposition groups, guerrilla forces and political factions. UNHCR staff are now engaged alongside U.N. peacekeeping forces in anarchic and unstable countries which lack viable national and local structures. Their duties include protecting civilians against reprisals and forced displacement; relocating and evacuating civilians from conflict areas; and assisting besieged populations, such as those in Sarajevo, who are either unable or unwilling to move from their homes. Frequently, however, UNHCR lacks any firm institutional and legal basis for this work.

The Challenges of Working in Internal Conflicts

In the post-cold war era, the international community is emphasizing the underlying causes of the refugee problem. Such a policy includes early warning, preventive diplomacy and ensuring respect for human rights. UNHCR itself has started to develop strategies and approaches intended to address the root causes of refugee flows before they start and to reduce or contain population movements which have already begun.(27)

This shift to a preventive strategy, however, cannot be accomplished easily or quickly. Working in countries of origin differs substantially from working in countries of asylum. Unlike in countries of asylum, UNHCR must work with governments as well as opposition movements and guerrilla factions. UNHCR is ill-equipped to respond to the needs of internally displaced people and returnees who live amid conditions of inter-communal violence and on-going conflict. For example, UNHCR staff experience serious difficulties in reaching displaced people, especially in areas contested by both governments and armed opposition groups, and many UNHCR officials lack prior experience in working with internally displaced populations. Furthermore, most staff are not recruited or trained to work in situations where local populations view both the displaced and returnees as the enemy and U.N. assistance as favoring one side to the disadvantage of the other. In situations such as in Bosnia, the Caucasus or Tajikistan, UNHCR uses humanitarian and legal interventions similar to those used by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but its staff lacks the special training, skills and experience of ICRC staff members.

A major obstacle to taking a more active role in refugee protection in countries of origin derives from the international refugee regime itself. The regime was designed to be non-political and strictly humanitarian, a strategy employed to receive permission to work in host countries and to secure funding from donor governments. UNHCR, as it is presently structured, is not mandated to intervene politically against governments or opposition groups, despite documentation of human rights violations. In addition, UNHCR staff are often unfamiliar with human rights and humanitarian law and are uncertain of how governments and opposition groups will react to their interventions using these protection norms.(28)

Warring parties in internal conflicts perceive humanitarian assistance and one of several weapons of warfare which is another weakness of current relief operations. For example, food assistance is very often used as a political weapon. Adversaries divert assistance from the proper recipients for military or political goals while denying assistance to certain populations and geographical areas by blocking access to international agencies. If UNHCR is to respond effectively to enlarged population flows resulting from the consequences of the increasing number of internal wars, it must both reorganize the staffing, training and operations of the organization to reflect new roles and endow it with the necessary resources, tools and mandate to do its job effectively.

The Inadequacy of the Existing Resource Base

The 1990s presented UNHCR with several new emergencies that greatly increased its overall expenditures. In 1991, as a result of emergency relief operations in northern Iraq and the Horn of Africa, total voluntary fund expenditures amounted to $862.5 million, an increase of almost 60 percent over 1990.(29) In 1992, new refugee and humanitarian crises in the former Yugoslavia, Bangladesh, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, as well as continued responsibilities in northern Iraq and new repatriation programs in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Mozambique, pushed UNHCR expenditures over $1 billion.(30) The sums required for UNHCR operations in 1993 are estimated to be in the range of $1.3 billion.

In addition to the high costs of responding to refugee crises, internal displacements and repatriations, humanitarian missions today are likely to be protracted affairs with no clear outcome. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, UNHCR committed approximately one-quarter of its staff and one-third of its total resources worldwide to providing assistance and protection to nearly four million people.(31) UNHCR is now in danger not only of overextending itself because of its involvement in vicious and intractable conflicts, but also of exhausting the political interest of donor governments in continuing to fund such protracted operations, even in high-profile situations like Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One of UNHCR's most significant weaknesses is its dependence on voluntary contributions to carry out existing and new programs. The flow of assistance from donor governments is neither reliable nor always in the most appropriate form. In addition, funding is frequently provided late and is often earmarked for particular uses with political overtones.

In the past, donor governments have made funding contingent upon external political factors. Today, however, these governments are less influenced politically by refugee situations, which they view as local or regional problems of little or no foreign policy or security value. Funding is now more likely to be cut back in favor of the domestic priorities of these industrialized states. Major powers are reluctant to provide funds for humanitarian programs when internal conflicts in aid-recipient countries continue unabated. Thus, despite the clear link in situations involving displacement and regional security, such as in the Caucasus and Central Asia, there is weak donor interest in funding a comprehensive strategy for dealing with refugees and internally displaced people. It is a tragic irony that major Western donors appear to have lost political incentive for providing generous support to new programs at a point when many political barriers to effective humanitarian action have disintegrated.

Inadequacy of Existing Mandates in International Humanitarian Law

While there is a dear mandate for the protection and the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees, existing political, diplomatic, economic and legal mechanisms are insufficiently developed to cope with the increasingly complex and volatile population movements of the post-Cold War period. In particular, there are no specific international organizations mandated to protect and assist the internally displaced.(32) At the same time, the political issues involved, particularly state sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs, make the issue of the internally displaced one of the most challenging problems confronting the international community in the 1990s.

Further, existing human rights and humanitarian laws offer internally displaced persons little protection. These also do not adequately cover forcible displacements and relocations,

humanitarian assistance and access, the right to food and the protection of relief workers.(33) In particular, public emergencies and internal violence fall outside the scope of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and Additional Protocol III of 1977.34As a result, many human rights provisions are suspended when the security of a state is suspended. It is precisely in these conditions that internal displacement often occurs.


Hindered both by its dependence on voluntary contributions to carry out its programs and its need to obtain the approval of host governments before intervening, UNHCR cannot resolve the problems of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people single-handedly. More attention must be focused on a range of players including development agencies, human rights networks, peacekeeping and conflict resolution mechanisms and the traditional relief organizations -- all of which must be involved in finding innovative approaches and collaborations to resolve conflicts and their accompanying displacements.

Interagency cooperation is the key to a more effective response to the problems of displacement. If UNHCR hopes to ensure cooperation in achieving a solution to displacement and phasing out the political source of such operations in the future, it must continue to work at improving coordination with other international, regional and non-governmental agencies, particularly in strategic planning and in making legal and institutional arrangements with other agencies charged with responding to refugees.

Department of Humanitarian Affairs

Making the system work better requires a more effective division of labor among the actors involved in responding to the humanitarian, political and security dimensions of internal conflicts. The U.N. General Assembly took an important first step in December 1991 in creating the Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, charged with providing a focal point, within governments and between governmental and non-governmental organizations for communication during U.N. emergency relief operations. In early 1992, Jan Eliasson, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, became the first Under Secretary-General in the newly formed U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA). The creation of the DHA was an essential step in clarifying and assigning responsibilities to U.N. agencies in complex emergencies. This is particularly apparent in situations where mandates overlap or where no entity has a clear mandate to act; in making quick decisions on the best coordinating mechanisms to respond to humanitarian emergencies at the field level; and in negotiating access for these agencies without waiting for a formal government request. Donor states influential in the creation of the DHA envision the office gathering data and managing information, mobilizing resources and orchestrating field activities, negotiating a framework of action with political authorities and providing overall leadership to humanitarian aid efforts.(36)

Unfortunately, in the past two years, the vision has not been realized. Lack of adequate staff in the field, a rapid succession of humanitarian crises in the post-cold war period, and incompletely established and largely untested mechanisms for interagency coordination have caught the DHA unprepared, to assume its intended leadership role in most recent emergencies. Perhaps the greatest difficulty confronting the DHA is that the specialized agencies such as UNHCR and others possess a high degree of constitutional autonomy and consistently resist any attempt by the DHA to impose strong authority over their actions in humanitarian emergencies. If the DHA's presence is to lead to improvements in the response capacity of the United Nations, the significance of its coordinating role must be recognized by UNHCR and other agencies. The DHA must also be fully equipped both politically and financially to undertake effectively its assigned tasks.

Coordinating Relief And Development

Closer coordination between United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNHCR represents a key solution to situations involving refugees, returnees and the internally displaced. Cooperation between these agencies already takes place in quick impact projects (QIPs)(37) aimed at assisting a variety of displaced groups in Central America, Mozambique and Cambodia. In addition, in recent years in the Horn of Africa, UNHCR and UNDP established joint management structures to create preventive zones and cross mandate programs to stabilize and prevent displacement in border areas.

Although there have been greater efforts at UNDP-UNHCR coordination in field operations, far more effective interagency planning, consultation and implementation are required. The roles and responsibilities of the UNDP and UNHCR in such efforts continue to be determined on an ad hoc, situation-by-situation basis. In most countries, humanitarian or emergency relief aid is administratively and programmatically divorced from developmental concerns. Thus, a "development gap" exists between short-term humanitarian relief assistance and long-term development. Through QIPs, UNHCR attempted to fill this gap in Central America, the Horn of Africa and Indochina where there are large returnee and displaced populations. But QIPs, because of their small size and limited nature, have only partially filled the gap between immediate assistance and longer-term development, highlighting the fact that UNHCR is not a development agency. The task of the overall rehabilitation of these communities must be carried out by UNDP, or by other U.N. agencies, which can more appropriately deal with reconstruction and development. This requires a full transfer of responsibility from UNHCR to UNDP after the immediate emergency relief phase is over -- again, an idea that UNDP consistently resists because it views itself as having a development, and not even a partially emergency, focus. Interagency coordination is especially important in the large-scale repatriations which UNHCR is planning for the 1990s.

In countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Mozambique, a precondition for successful returns is development aid and reintegration assistance aimed at alleviating extreme poverty in countries of origin.(38) Without improved and established economic prospects in these countries, political instability and new displacements are likely to occur.(39) A focus on safety of return and reintegration involves rethinking the roles and mandates of international organizations and NGOs; shifting their operational priorities from receiving countries to countries of return; training agency staff to work in development as well as relief assistance; and closer cooperation and coordination between development and refugee agencies on the one hand, and human rights and refugee agencies on the other.

Greater Human Rights Monitoring and Enforcement

Greater development assistance alone is not enough to create safe conditions for those returning home: international cooperation must also ensure democratization and respect for human rights. However, neither good governance nor respect for human rights falls within UNHCR's domain. The existing U.N. human rights machinery needs to be strengthened and applied more effectively to deal with refugees, returnees and the internally displaced, for it is integral to the success of U.N. peacemaking.(40)

In recent years, the U.N. human rights system has demonstrated its potential capabilities to respond quickly to a select number of human rights emergencies involving the internally displaced. In 1992, it called an unprecedented meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and appointed a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses of minority populations in Bosnia and to make recommendations to the Security Council. Similarly, an incriminating U.N. report on human rights violations in Iraq, including the alleged forced deportation and murder of the Shi'ite population by the Iraqi army, provided humanitarian justification for the establishment of an air exclusion zone over southern Iraq.(41)

At the same time, the United Nations Centre for Human Rights, through its Advisory Services, has worked on a number of U.N. peacekeeping or peace-enforcement missions, providing significant technical assistance and cooperation to the U.N. human rights presence in the field, for example, in El Salvador, Somalia and, now, in Cambodia. These actions underscore both the potentially key role of the U.N. human rights machinery and the growing involvement of the Security Council in humanitarian matters, and the recognition that the promotion and protection of the human rights of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced are an integral part of U.N. peacemaking.

At present, the U.N. human rights program is grossly understaffed and underfunded. The advisory services section of the Centre for Human Rights, for example, has an annual budget of approximately $700,000. This is a minuscule sum in view of both the massive amounts currently being spent on relief and peacekeeping operations and the potential of the advisory services section to strengthen civil society, promote democratic and pluralistic institutions and procedures and, thereby, to prevent human rights abuses and mass displacements.

If the United Nations hopes to respond more effectively to the refugee crisis, it must strengthen its capacity to monitor developments in human rights issues. A greater protection role in the field should be granted to U.N. human rights personnel. At present, the U.N. Centre for Human Rights has country expertise but no field presence. In the short-term, the Centre can strengthen its coverage in the field by the continued expansion of its advisory services and technical cooperation. In addition, by offering services such as training judges, strengthening electoral commissions, establishing ombudsmen, training prison staff and advising governments on constitutions and legislation regarding national minorities and human rights, the Centre is likely to be more successful in its activities and less threatening to governments than in more straightforward, fieldwork-oriented human rights monitoring.

In recent years, there has been much discussion about the creation of special human rights machinery for the internally displaced. At its 1993 session, the U.N. Human Rights Commission reappointed the Special Representative on the Internally Displaced to monitor mass displacements of people, collect information on violations of their human rights, and help to sustain a positive dialogue toward achieving solutions with governments of the country of origin. But the Special Representative must be given proper political support and funding to carry out his or her tasks effectively. A General Assembly Resolution confirming the role and mandate of the Special Representative is now required to institutionalize this office further. A significant first step toward trying to deal with the problem would be to designate a permanent representative for the internally displaced. This representative could undertake fact-finding missions, intercede with governments, embark on activities which strengthen institutions that sustain democracy and civil society, publish reports and bring violations to the attention of human rights bodies and the Security Council.

Recently, there have been attempts to create closer linkages between UNHCR and the human rights organs and activities of the U.N. system. In 1992, for example, the Centre for Human Rights and UNHCR drafted a memorandum of understanding so that human rights information collected by UNHCR could be forwarded to the Centre for Human Rights. At the end of 1992, UNHCR and the Centre established a joint working group to study mechanisms and approaches for enhanced and continuous collaboration. Such consultation should be strengthened to ensure that displacements emanating from human rights violations are brought to the attention of the Commission on Human Rights, and that the work of the Centre's advisory services section adequately addresses human rights issues associated with refugee movements and internal displacements.

Military Involvement in Future Refugee Emergencies

The emergencies in the post-Cold War era have highlighted the need for more effective interface between humanitarian relief and political and security considerations. Relief programs frequently now run alongside peacekeeping efforts or other types of military intervention. Indeed, humanitarian aid is likely to become increasingly militarized, especially because of the heavy casualties among relief workers and fighting, for example, in Mozambique and Bosnia. Recent experience has demonstrated that the military has instant access to a range of material and logistical resources which simply are not available to UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations.(42) With the greater use of military convoys and the need for security training among UNHCR staff, UNHCR field operations in conditions of continuing conflict are, in fact, becoming increasingly militarized.

While the potential for cooperation between humanitarian organizations and military forces should not be discounted, it is evident that the objectives and working methods of the two groups of actors are different, and, in some cases, contradictory. As relief operations in countries such as Iraq and Somalia have indicated, military forces rarely, if ever, have a purely humanitarian agenda. Moreover, they are generally unwilling to work under external direction, even in operations conducted under U.N. auspices.(43)

Recent experiences in Bosnia also demonstrate that the provision of military security for relief operations can compromise the neutrality of UNHCR and its staff, and can even threaten the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Military intervention may also have an adverse impact on the resolution of conflicts. In the struggle to provide aid to the displaced and other war victims, the resolution of the root causes of the conflict can easily become increasingly peripheral.

In future operations, there should be greater efforts to ensure the complementarity of humanitarian and political objectives. If military intervention for humanitarian purposes is undertaken, it should fit into an integrated humanitarian/conflict resolution framework, and humanitarian assistance and the protection of refugees and displaced persons should not be subservient to or compromised by the political and military decision-making process and priorities. Any humanitarian action needs political support, but humanitarian agencies and military forces should work as partners in situations where humanitarian and political objectives carry equal weight.

The U.N. Secretary-General should ensure that the peacekeeping, peacemaking and humanitarian components operating in complex emergencies are better coordinated. Further, the Secretary-General should ensure that each of these components embraces an explicit humanitarian mandate that recognizes the primacy of human rights and refugee protection in the conduct of peacekeeping activities. This would prevent the recurrence of situations, as have occurred in Bosnia and Somalia, where U.N. military or civilian staff have failed to prevent or ameliorate human rights abuses, claiming that such action is beyond their mandates. In the long-term, the DHA should be given the necessary capacity and ability to coordinate all the dimensions and actors involved in refugee emergencies.


The refugee emergencies of the post-Cold War era highlight the fact that combatting the causes of forced migration cannot proceed solely within the mandate of international humanitarian organizations. The global refugee problem is not a humanitarian problem requiring charity but is a political problem requiring political solutions, and as such it cannot be separated from other areas of international concern such as migration, human rights, international security and development assistance. Such an approach raises complex questions of harmonization of efforts, coordination, determination of institutional responsibilities and allocation of resources. Thus, the challenge of the 1990s for the international community will be to respond not only to the immediate humanitarian problems of displaced people, but, in the long-run, also to confront the conditions which lead to these dislocations. These are political tasks requiring a more active role from national policymakers and a greater willingness to utilize fully the U.N. and regional mechanisms on security, peacekeeping and peacemaking and human rights in anticipating as well as reacting effectively to refugee incidents around the world. A more comprehensive and effective international response to refugee problems will require adequate and readily available resources. UNHCR, the Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and other U.N. agencies cannot accomplish their missions unless the major donor states, including the United States, are prepared to bear a greater financial burden. Greater interagency cooperation, financial support and reinforcement of existing institutional mechanisms are the only effective ways for the international community, both to manage interdependent issues like refugee movements, and to ensure long-term global strategic stability. (1.) International regimes are defined using Stephen Krasner's explanation of "principles norms and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue area." Stephen Krasner, "Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables," International Organization, 36 (1982) p. 185. (2.) Gil Loescher, Refugee Movements and International Security, Adelphi Paper 268 (London and Riverside, NJ: Brassey's for The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1992). (3.) Since 1950, an international refugee regime composed of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a network of other international agencies, national governments and voluntary or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have developed response strategies that permit some refugees to remain in their countries of first asylum, enable others to be resettled in third countries and arrange for still others to be repatriated to their countries of origin. (4.) John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Question (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). (5.) In general, the achievements of the 1920s Nansen period are downplayed in the literature on refugees and international organizations because of the monumental failures of the international community to protect refugees during the 1930s and early 1940s. A major exception is a new work by Claudena Skran, The International Refugee Regime and the Refugee Problem in Interwar Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). See also Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). (6.) ibid. (7.) See, for example, David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) and Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968); Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews Of Europe, 1933-1948 (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1986); and Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). (8.) George Woodbridge, UNRRA, The History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, 1-3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950) and Kim Salomon, Refugees in the Cold War: Toward a New International Refugee Regime in the Early Postwar Era (Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1991). (9.) For a critical treatment of Western policy, see: Mark Elliot, Pawns of Yalta: Soviet Refugees and America's Role in Their Repatriation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982). (10.) See: John Stoesssinger, The Refugee and the World Community (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1956); Louise Holborn, The International Refugee Organization. A Specialized Agency of the United Nations: Its History and Work, 1946-1952 (London: Oxford University Press, 1956); and Salomon (1991), pp. 185-217. (11.) For general background to these UN debates, see Louise Holborn, Refugees: A Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 1951-1972, 1 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975); Guy Goodwin-Gill, "Different Types of Forced Migration Movements as an International and National Problem," in Goran Rystad, ed., The Uprooted: Forced Migration as an International Problem in the Post-War Era (Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1990) pp. 1546; and Salomon (1991) pp. 218-32. (12.) For accounts of this period, see: Ronald Scheinman, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Contemporary International System (Ph.D. dissertation, 1974); Holborn, p. 1; and Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America's Half-Open Door, 1945 to Present (New York: The Free Press, 1986). (13.) UNHCR offered assistance not only to refugees fleeing from persecution who were clearly within its mandate, but also to war victims and other externally displaced people in "refugee-like situations," who were not formally within the Office's mandate. (14.) The most authoritative account of the causes of refugee movements in the developing world is by Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguayo, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). This analysis argues that the conflicts in the developing world which produced refugee flows were generally either conflicts of state formation or conflicts over the social order. (15.) The 1951 Refugee Convention contained geographical and temporal limits. It covered only refugee movements occurring in Europe before 1951. The 1967 Protocol removed these. Guy Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). (16.) For background, see: Cecilia Rudistrom-Ruin, Beyond Europe: The Globalization of Refugee Aid (Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1993). (17.) The extension of the rules and the expansion of the activities of the international refugee regime occurred in a series of successive U.N. resolutions enabling UNHCR to assist Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco, "refugees within his (the High Commissioner's) mandate and those for whom he extends his good offices," and all the various groups within his competence and, finally, by the adoption of new legal instruments, most prominently the 1967 Protocol to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, the Convention on Refugee Problems in Africa and the Cartegna Declaration of 1984. See Goodwin-Gill (1983). (18.) Ruthstrom-Ruin (1993). (19.) This argument is made convincingly in Ruthstrom-Ruin (1993). (20.) Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, Uncertain Haven (New York: Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, 1991). (21.) Between 1975 and 1980, the number of UNCHR field offices increased from fewer than 50 to more than 80, and the total staff rose from 380 to 1,700. Annual expenditures rose from approximately $12 million in 1972 to more than $500 million in 1980. See: Ronald Scheinman, "Refugees: Goodbye to the Good Old Days," in Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, eds., The Global Refugee Problem: U.S. and World Response (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1983) Special issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 467 (1983) p. 88. (22.) For background, see: Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo (1989) pp. 227-57; Loescher (1992) pp. 12-15; and Peter Koehn, Refugees from Revolution: U.S. Policy and Third World Migration (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991). (23.) UNHCR, The State of the World's Refugees: The Challenge of Protection (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). (24.) ibid., and Kevin Cahill, ed., A Framework for Survival: Health, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Assistance in Conflicts and Disasters (New York: Basic Books and The Council on Foreign Relations, 1993). (25.) Loescher (1992). (26.) Lori Fisler Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint: Collective Intervention in Internal Conflicts (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993). (27.) For specifics see: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Inter-Office Memorandum, no. 78/92, The Report of the UNHCR Working Group on International Protection (Geneva: UNHCR, 31 July 1992). (28.) Author's interviews with UNHCR staff, Geneva, March and May 1993. (29.) United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Draft Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (E/1992/May 1992) p. 56. (30.) ibid., p. 56. (31.) Author's interviews with UNHCR staff in Geneva, April 1993. (32.) Francis Deng, Protecting the Dispossessed: A Challenge for the International Community (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1993). (33.) Norwegian Refugee Council and Refugee Policy Group, Human Rights Protection for Internally Displaced Persons (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1993).

(36.) Jacques Cuenod, "Coordinating United Nations Humanitarian Assistance," RPG Focus (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, June 1993). (37.) QIPs are small-scale development projects such as the digging of wells which lead to the immediate rehabilitation of communities. This model was first devised in Nicaragua and subsequently extended to Afghanistan, Cambodia and Somalia. (38.) Anthony Lake et al., After the Wars: Reconstruction in Afghanistan, Indochina, Central America, Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990). (39.) Barry Stein and Fred Curry, "Repatriation Under Conflict," in World Refugee Survey 1991 (1991) pp. 15-21. (40.) Roberta Cohen, Introducing Refugee Issues in the United Nations Human Rights Agenda Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1990) and United Nations Human Rights Bodies: An Agenda for Humanitarian Action (Washington, DC: Refugee Policy Group, 1992). (41.) Carroll J. Doherty, "New Report Revives Outrage Over Human Rights Abuses," in Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 51 (20 March 1993) p. 682. (42.) Leon Gordenker and Thomas Weiss, eds., Soldiers, Peacekeepers and Disasters (Basingstoke: MacMillan and the International Peace Academy, 1991). (43.) Adam Roberts, "The United Nations and International Security," in Survival, 35, no. 2 (Summer 1993) p. 3.
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Title Annotation:Refugees and International Population Flows
Author:Loescher, Gil
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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