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The Comfort of Strangers

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Jinmi Adisa

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Introduction: Global Refugee Crises

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1. The Refugee Movements

  • 1 The definition of international regime used here follows Loescher who adopted Stephen Krasner’s ex (...)
  • 2 These include Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaimed the ‘r (...)
  • 3 A third category of refugees has been described as those who, owing to the political system of the (...)

1Within the last eight decades, the global community has put in place an international refugee regime1 that regularizes the status and provides for the control of stateless people ail over the world. The process has been gradual and incremental. Various conventions and treaties have been signed defining the status of refugees as a peculiar category of victims of violation of human rights with special protection, benefits and privileges.2 The United Nations Geneva Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol together define refugees as persons forced out of their country of nationality on account of a well founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, nationality, religion and membership of a particular social group or political opinion. In practice, the definition has often been expanded to include people uprooted but unable or unwilling to leave their own country, generally referred to as internally displaced people3. A significant degree of inter-governmental collaboration has been achieved on this issue ; in part, because it serves the selfish interests of various governments. The governments share a common concern that refugee flows generate domestic instability, intra-state tensions and international insecurity. They are anxious, therefore, to take advantage of the support offered by international cooperation especially as it facilitates coordination of policies and burden sharing. Yet, certain reservations continue to dictate ambivalence in the attitudes of states to refugees. The Great Powers want to limit their financial obligations, particularly for large resettlement schemes, while lesser states are wary of yielding authority to international refugee agencies or institutions that could impinge on their sovereignty.

  • 4 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Assemb (...)
  • 5 By mid-1994, the CIREFCA plan had achieved impressive results. Some 70 000 Nicaraguans, 30 000 Sal (...)

2In spite of this, considerable progress has transpired at both the global and regional level. For example, at a summit meeting of 10 September 1969, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted a convention4 urging generosity by member states toward asylum seekers. This instrument came into force five years later on June 20, now commemorated as Africa Refugee Day. After this, in May 1979, a Pan-African Conference on the Situation of Refugees was held, which was followed by two International Conferences on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) in 1981 and 1984 respectively. Similarly, the first International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) which met in Guatemala City in May 1989 adopted a five-year (1989-94) Concerted Plan of Action to find solutions to the problems of uprooted people in the strife-torn region.5 These various efforts consummated a historical process that had been initiated much earlier. Indeed, the responsibilities of the international refugee regime have steadily increased since the First World War, as it has been confronted with different challenges and has had to adapt to specific needs.

2. Background to the Current Situation

  • 6 Gil Loescher, The international refugee regime : Stretched to the limit ? op. cit. ; Part of this (...)

3Gil Loescher has identified five major periods in which the international refugee regime faced critical problems and responded to specific needs, namely : (a) the interwar period ; (b) the immediate post Second World War era ; (c) the period of expansion into the Third World during the late 1950s through to most of the 1970s ; (d) the 1980s when the regime faced long-standing refugee problems resulting from superpower involvement in regional conflicts ; and finally, (e) the current post-Cold War era, during which displacements and repatriations in situations of civil conflict have come to assume primary importance for international organizations and for governments.6

  • 7 Louise Holborn, The League of Nations and the refugee problem, Annals (May 1939) : 124-35 ; The le (...)

4The international refugee regime was born in the aftermath of the First World War when the dissolution of multi-ethnic empires uprooted millions of people and rendered many of them homeless.7 The bulk of displaced people were without necessary papers, national passports, identification papers or other protection and they wandered homelessly across Europe searching for refuge. The instinctive reaction of European governments was to close borders, erect protective barriers and expel them from their countries. Such reactions created large pools of refugees that compromised regional security and overwhelmed the capacity of national public, private and government agencies. The tension generated by this problem inspired Western governments in 1921 to establish the first multilateral co-ordinating mechanism, the High Commission for Refugees under Fridtjof Nansen. The High Commission was given specific responsibility for Russian and later, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Armenian refugees. The mandate was extended in the 1930s by European governments to cover refugees fleeing from the disintegrating Russian and Ottoman Empires, and subsequently refugees from Germany and Austria as the Nazis took over these countries. This refugee regime operated under the aegis of the League of Nations and was carefully' circumscribed in terms of its authority and responsibility. Its mandate was deliberately narrow, as governments designated specific national groups as refugees and afforded them very limited protection. As the reputation and credibility of the League of Nations declined following the withdrawal of Japan, Germany and Italy and its failure to resolve the Ethiopian and Manchurian crises, the organization's effectiveness in coping with refugees was severely undermined. As a result, the interwar refugee regime proved unable to cope with the demands created by the Holocaust and other refugee crises of the period.

  • 8 George Woodbridge, UNRRA, The History of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, (...)
  • 9 See Louise Holbom, Refugees : A problem of our time : The work of the United Nations High Commissi (...)

5The Second World War created another major refugee crisis affecting millions of people in Eastern and Central Europe. In response, the Four Great Powers (US, Britain, France and Russia) set up the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) in 1943 to promote and oversee the repatriation of displaced people under allied control.8 This was a temporary measure to resolve a complex emergency. The UNRRA was not a refugee organization per se. Indeed, following the Yalta Agreement of 1945 and Soviet pressure, the UNRRA played an active role in the forcible repatriation of large numbers of people who had legitimate grounds to fear repatriation. It was only after UNRRA was abolished in 1945, that the contemporary refugee regime began to take shape. In a bid to find concrete ways of resettling Eastern European refugees, the Western powers, in the face of Soviet opposition, set up the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) to focus on resettling the remaining refugees and those displaced by the war.9 The idea was to avert potential destabilization posed by the refugee problem and to internationalize the refugee effort by distributing costs and displaced people among the different states of Western Europe, North and South America, Australasia and certain parts of Africa. The architect of this post-war refugee regime was the United States, which underwrote two-thirds of the cost and exercised exclusive control over the leadership. The IRO was an expensive operation ; in addition, political crises in the aftermath of the war in India, Korea, China, Palestine and around the perimeters of the Iron Curtain soon created new refugees by the million. Government officials in the United States and Western countries began to perceive the refugee issue as an unending problem which should only attract limited financial commitments. There was, therefore, strong opposition to any open-ended commitment of the UN in this regard.

  • 10 For some details see Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, Calculated Kindness : Refugees and America’s h (...)

6The establishment of the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950 was influenced by this consideration and the United States and her Western Allies placed severe limitations on the scope and authority of the organization.10 The United States created two new US-led organizations : the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the US Escapee Program, both of which handled refugee problems but were outside the control of the UN. Moreover, specially created UN agencies such as the United Nations Works and Relief Agencies for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency were created to handle refugee populations in conflict areas of strategic interest to the US. The United States gave generous financial support to these organizations which provided an excuse for not giving support to the UNHCR programme. Part of the problem was that the United States, the only nation capable of providing the political and financial resources required to enable the international refugee regime to function effectively, viewed the refugee crisis from the perspective of the Cold War. The same applied to its Western Allies. Aristide Zolberg observed :

  • 11 Aristide Zolberg, Commentary on current refugee issues, as presented to Gérard E. Trimarco and Wee (...)

We welcomed these people because they were victims of communism. But the fact that we welcomed them, the fact that they wanted to get out was constant evidence that communism was undesirable and that our way of life was desirable. Germany received Germans from any communist country. Obviously, it was a constant demonstration that post-war Germany was a legitimate and desirable state. And that they were under constraints to have such a policy because of their past and every time they did receive somebody, it was a demonstration that they weren't a 'bad' Germany that had produced refugees. So, in that sense, it was part of foreign policy.11

7The consequence of this political orientation was a denial of necessary financial and diplomatic support to the UNHCR until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 presented the UN with a unique opportunity to demonstrate that it could be useful to American foreign policy interests. The UNHCR took advantage of this opportunity to show that it was the only international agency capable of co-ordinating relief assistance operations for refugees and collecting resources that could be used for such emergency assistance. To the extent that this was a Cold War refugee crisis, the agile response of the UNHCR attracted US support, especially because the High Commissioner, August Lindt, also won the confidence of communist authorities in the Eastern bloc for his repatriation efforts. As a result, the contemporary international refugee regime emerged fully as the funding capacity and operational responsibilities of UNHCR grew.

  • 12 Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergo Aguayo, Escape from Violence : Conflict and refugee crisi (...)
  • 13 For details see Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, eds., The Global Refugee Problem : US and world res (...)

8This background laid the foundation for the organizational expansion of the international refugee regime in the next twenty-year period, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, when it was confronted by complex emergencies in the Third World. By the late 1950s, refugee outflows from Eastern Europe declined as developments outside Europe demanded a refocusing of the High Commission's attention, primarily towards the Third World.12 The forces behind this adjustment were movements for decolonization, colonial résistance associated with liberation struggles in Africa and Asia and anti-colonial insurgency operations. They brought into play powerful political currents, upheavals and civil strife which generated large numbers of refugees. These refugee movements occurred in social, political and cultural contexts that were different from those of Europe. The refugee groups were mainly subsistence farmers, herdsmen and artisans ; rural folks with little contact with modem society. There were mass movements, with entire villages or ethnic groups spilling across national frontiers. Typically therefore, they arrived as destitute communities requiring emergency relief assistance for survival. As a consequence, international refugee instruments had to be adjusted. Also, the assistance capacity of UNHCR was expanded and reoriented to fit in with the demands of the Third World.13

9This was a period of innovation. First, these refugee situations either directly involved or implicated Western colonial powers who were the founding fathers of the international refugee regime. This created a situation of intricate political dynamics, as these countries were keen to avoid the political embarrassment it offered. Thus, they supported adjusting the rules of the refugee regime to fit new situations as a means of sidestepping potential conflict of interests. Such governments also favoured the idea of turning to UNHCR to meet the needs of new and different refugee groups. The UN General Assembly felt that it was necessary to broaden the scope of the High Commission's authority for action. This extension of rules and expansion of activities of the international refugee regime occurred through a successive series of UN resolutions and conventions that enabled UNHCR to assist refugees in various places — Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco, Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, Burundi, etc.

10Western governments supported the operations of the UNHCR as a way of coping with domestic instability in the Third World which they felt the Soviet communists would exploit. The approach in this period was pragmatic and legalistic implications were downgraded, primarily because a non-legalistic approach served the interests of powerful states who were not faced with the immediate prospect of a mass influx of refugees from the Third World.

11This relatively liberal attitude was reversed in the 1980s, as the global powers were now confronted with the problem of coping with refugee outflows from areas affected by superpower rivalry and their interference in regional conflicts. The intensification of the Cold War gave a different flavour to the refugee crisis. Established Third World governments and their opposition factions became locked in power struggles firmly rooted in superpower ideological confrontation. Internal wars in Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Indo-China, Afghanistan and Central Africa became protracted conflicts which generated vast flows of refugees. Long-term care and maintenance in enclosed camps became the norm for large numbers of refugees fleeing conflict zones. The global refugee problem assumed an enormous dimension. More interestingly, the asylum problem became visible on the doorsteps of Western countries as expanded air transport facilities allowed some refugees to go directly to Western states to seek refuge.

3. The Current Situation

  • 14 Brian Urquart, The United Nations and useful interventions, Development and Co-operation (1995) ; (...)

12The post-Cold War era of the 1990s heralded a new pattern of refugee emergencies which exemplify the different kinds of challenges confronting states and institutions in our changing global landscape. Prior to this period, the widely held belief among the non-aligned countries, particularly in the Third World, was that the end of the Cold War would create an era of goodwill and stability. Instead, and contrary to general expectations, the international society in the last five years has experienced a plague of violence rooted in conflicts within rather than among nation states.14 The expected peace did not materialize because the new political climate created pressures for democratization, market reform and micro-nationalism. These fed on economic frustration, undermining shaky political structures and corrupt bureaucracies. They unleashed political upheavals increasingly contaminated with a preoccupation with race, nationality and ethnicity.

  • 15 Gil Loescher, 1994.

13In Africa, in particular, failed states or wounded societies fragmented by the weight of communal, ethnic or religious violence have instigated a pattern of civil strife and social disorder in which 'civilians are often used as weapons or targets in warfare and large-scale displacements comprise a political strategy in claiming control over territory.'15 The consequences are large refugee movements encouraged by the availability of arms, socio-economic divisions and human rights abuses. The number of displaced people in such situations of internal conflict has grown rapidly in the last five years, and threatens to overwhelm the international refugee regime. The task of meeting the immediate needs of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people has become enormous while refugee relief agencies including UNHCR now find themselves operating in circumstances of persistent violence and near anarchy. They must now work not only with governments but also with opposition groups, guerrilla forces and contending political factions. The challenge facing the international community, especially the United Nations, is to evaluate current circumstances and revise, strengthen and develop innovative strategies to address the causes of refugee movements, to control the numbers involved and develop strategies to cope with the long- and short-term effects of these movements. The case of Rwanda is an appropriate departure point because it dramatizes vividly the multidimensional nature of the tasks confronting the international society in this respect and the need for urgent solutions. Thus, as Dr. Wally N'dow, the Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS-Habitat) aptly put it :

  • 16 Wally N’dow. Welcome Address to the First Regional Bureau for Africa (RBA) / UNCHS, (Habitat) Cons (...)

14Rwanda is of vital importance in this context because it is now more than just the name of a country but an embodiment of the challenge to secure the human future.16

Notes

1 The definition of international regime used here follows Loescher who adopted 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 Organisations 36 (1982) : 185 ; See also Gil Loescher, The international refugee regime : Stretched to the limit ? Journal of International Affairs (Winter 1994) : 352.

2 These include Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaimed the ‘right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ United Nations Conventions relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, convened under the UN General Assembly (UNGA) res. 429 (V), 14 December 1950, adopted on 28 July 1951, entered into force on April 22, 1954 ; United Nations Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees adopted by ECOSOC res 1186 (XLI), 18 November 1966 ; UNGA res. 2198 (XXI), 16 December 1966, entered into force on 4 October 1967 ; Declaration on Territorial Asylum, adopted by UNGA res. 2312, (XXII), 14 December 1967 ; texts in UNHCR, Collection of International Instruments Concerning Refugees, 1979 ; see also Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict : UNGA res. 3318 (XXXIX), 14 Dec. 1974 ; UNHCR, State of World Refugees : The challenge of protection. Penguin, New York, 1993 ; Report of the Working Group on Current Problems in International Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons in Asia, International Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Remo, Italy, 1981 ; G.S. Godwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983 ; UNHCR Conclusions on the International Protection of Refugees, adopted by the Executive Committee of the High Commission’s Programme, 1980 ; A.C. Helton, Asylum and refugee protection in Thailand, International Journal of Refugee Law 1 (1989) ; Gros Espiell et al. Principles and criteria for protection of and assistance to Central American refugees, returnees and displaced persons in Latin America, International Journal of Refugee Law 2 (1990).

3 A third category of refugees has been described as those who, owing to the political system of their country, live in the same socio-economic conditions as those experienced by refugees outside their country. These are not internally displaced nor are they resident outside their country. This category of refugees is not acknowledged by, let alone recognized by, either refugee specialists or UNHCR. Goran Lindgren et al. Experiences from Conflict Resolution in the Third World, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala, 1993.

4 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Assembly’ of Heads of States and Governments at the 60th Ordinary Session on 10 September 1969, entered into force on 20 June 1974 ; text in UNHCR, Collection of International Instruments, op. cit., 1979. Article 1(2) of the convention subscribes to a broadened refugee definition which embraces those displaced by war and civil disorder.

5 By mid-1994, the CIREFCA plan had achieved impressive results. Some 70 000 Nicaraguans, 30 000 Salvadorians and more than 18 000 Guatemalans had voluntarily returned to their countries. Thousands more who had decided not to go home were being integrated into asylum countries. ‘Closed’ camps were eliminated and refugees were encouraged to play a more productive role in asylum countries. Starting in Nicaragua, UNHCR pioneered Quick Impact Projects (QIPS) to support returnee communities in different areas — transportation, health, infrastructure, agricultural production and income generation. QIPS have now become a critical component of UNHCR programmes ail over the world.

6 Gil Loescher, The international refugee regime : Stretched to the limit ? op. cit. ; Part of this analysis is abstracted from here. See also Gil Loescher, Refugee Movements and International Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, Adelphi Papers, 268 (1992).

7 Louise Holborn, The League of Nations and the refugee problem, Annals (May 1939) : 124-35 ; The legal status of political refugees 1920-1939, American Journal of International Law (AJIL) 32 : 4 (1938) ; John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Question : Report of survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1939 ; Michael Marrus, The Unwanted : European refugees in the twentieth century, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.

8 George Woodbridge, UNRRA, The History of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, 3 vols, Columbia University Press, New York, 1950 ; Kim Solomon, Refugees in the Cold War : Toward a new international refugee regime in the early postwar era, Lund University Press, Lund, Sweden, 1991

9 See Louise Holbom, Refugees : A problem of our time : The work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees 1951-1972, Methuen, New Jersey, 1975 ; Goran Rystad, ed. The Uprooted : Forced migration as an international problem in the post-war era, Lund University Press, Lund, Sweden, 1990.

10 For some details see Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, Calculated Kindness : Refugees and America’s half-open door, 1945 to the present, The Free Press, New York, 1986.

11 Aristide Zolberg, Commentary on current refugee issues, as presented to Gérard E. Trimarco and Weerackody Somali. Journal of International Affairs (Winter 1994) : 343.

12 Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergo Aguayo, Escape from Violence : Conflict and refugee crisis in the developing world. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.

13 For details see Gil Loescher and John Scanlan, eds., The Global Refugee Problem : US and world response, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, California, 1983 ; Peter Koehn, Refugees from Revolution : US policy and Third World migration, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1991.

14 Brian Urquart, The United Nations and useful interventions, Development and Co-operation (1995) ; See also James Mayall, Nationalism and international security after the Cold War, Survival (Spring 1992). Colin Legum, The post-communist Third World : Focus on Africa. Problems of Communism (Jan-April 1992) ; James Schlesinger, New instabilities, new priorities. Foreign Policy (1992) ; James H. Anderson, New World order and state sovereignty : Implications for UN-sponsored intervention. Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 16 : 2 (Summer 1992) ; Robert Jackson, Quasi State Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

15 Gil Loescher, 1994.

16 Wally N’dow. Welcome Address to the First Regional Bureau for Africa (RBA) / UNCHS, (Habitat) Consultation for UNDP Resident Representatives for African Countries in Crisis. Nairobi, 5-6 June, 1995.

© Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 1995

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