War's refugee toll rises, even with fewer conflicts


LONDON -- A very peculiar thing has happened, perhaps unprecedented in human history. As wars have diminished -- all wars, but wars between states in particular -- the wars that remain have become more blood-curdling, more no-holds-barred, particularly when it comes to women and children, and have produced proportionately more refugees than previous eras of conflict.

We should use the momentary lull in Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Afghanistan to resolve what seems to have caught a grip on the post-Cold War world and delivered it a degree of ethnic strife and population displacement not seen since the Nazis turned Europe on its head.

Redrawn borders

One reason, not to be welcomed, but often overlooked, why Europe, ex-Yugoslavia exempted, is now so relatively stable is that the redrawing of Europe's borders after 1945 and the subsequent movement of millions of people (far greater numbers than today's grand total of refugees) created more homogeneous countries than had ever existed in Central and Eastern Europe.

This should remind us not only how few years have past since the West made refugee mayhem but also that nation-state creation has never been straightforward and the present mess in places like central Africa is partly because the Europeans imposed their own half-baked ideas on a colonized continent.

The situation we now confront with the number of refugees per conflict escalating sharply -- almost double what it was in the 1960s -- shows no immediate signs of diminishing.

One school of thought puts it down to the end of the Cold War, which for all the superpowers' stirring of conflict and support of proxy wars paradoxically often kept a steady hand on keeping conflicts from spinning out of control.

Other scholars dispute this, arguing that the escalating numbers of refugees preceded the end of the Cold War.

Another well rehearsed argument puts it down to increasing population growth, environmental degradation, maldistribution of wealth and the like. It has some truth in it. The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report (which ranks 130 countries according to their progress in life expectancy, adult literacy and purchasing power) shows that 26 of the 30 countries with severe refugee problems were below the mean.

But it could be simply that high levels of violent political conflict produce poverty rather than the other way round. Famine, as in Somalia, or Ethiopia a decade ago, is often the result of war rather than the cause of it.

Persistent war kills or drives away the educated and those left behind are less able to develop a country. Stability is usually a sine qua non for future progress -- look at Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Portugal, Costa Rica and Venezuela. All of them had to put an end to ethnic, racial or ideological turbulence before they properly got going.

In a case like Burundi and Rwanda, population growth, poverty and environmental degradation clearly can be singled out as major culprits -- though not the only ones -- in the violence that periodically consumes the whole country. But for every case this can be shown there is another where it is manifestly not so -- ex-Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and Iraq.

Moreover, there are many poor countries even more overcrowded where such pogroms are unknown -- Barbados, Haiti and Bangladesh and many parts of India, such as the "overpopulated" state of Bengal.

Not much of this debate seems to answer convincingly the conundrum -- why so many more refugees the last 20 years? The only argument that bears scrutiny is the one that fingers the proliferation of modern arms. Even this has its detractors -- the massive blood-letting in Rwanda and Burundi was achieved mainly by hand-wielded machetes.

Nevertheless, automatic rifles, nail bombs and anti-personnel mines so easily available these days do ratchet up the scale of conflicts.

The rising and all too rarely checked power of arms merchants with their close ties to members of the Western, Russian and Third World political class added to the existence of post-Cold-War surpluses from the great powers, in my opinion, are the single most identifiable culprits.

No easy remedy

None of this is very satisfactory for those who seek a simple answer to the rise of refugee flows. Nor are there easy remedies as Somalia and ex-Yugoslavia demonstrate.

The human rights impulse often ends up with "good-hearted people" in stable, affluent countries proposing military intervention, war by another name, in an effort to end someone else's war.

More sensible most of the time is steady work to restrict arms trafficking, the campaign against anti-personnel mines last year exhibiting some modest success.

It means the International Monetary Fund and other financial and aid agencies tightening the links between giving help and lowered defense spending. And it means keeping up the momentum on economic development, income distribution and human rights, all of which over time bring some influence to bear on diminishing conflict.

One day the cumulative effect might be noticeable.

Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on the Third World

Pub Date: 1/10/97

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