Courtesy Reuters

Refugees: A Never Ending Story

When Eleanor Roosevelt received the 1947 Nansen Award for her work with refugees in postwar Europe, she said she was depressed to know that 70,000 refugees still remained in camps. She and the other humanitarians of her times saw refugees as a transitory phenomenon caused by the great world wars, a problem that could and should be solved promptly with goodwill and appropriate resources.

Yet today, 38 years later, there are more refugees than ever, and the refugee problem has become a permanent factor of international affairs. Barely a month passes without yet another refugee flow clamoring for attention. Current concepts of refugee protection and assistance now face critical tests, as even long-term advocates of generous asylum and relief wonder whether the world will be able to care for all its refugees and their seemingly interminable needs.

Refugees have existed throughout recorded history and probably since the dawn of the human community. In 1283 B.C., Pharaoh Ramses II sought the return of refugees to Egypt in a treaty with the Hittites. Greek antiquity left us both the concept of asylum and the word (from "asylon") that expresses it. Orestes was a refugee. So were Dante, Wagner, Einstein and innumerable other creative, political or religious personalities. So were whole nations or groups, such as the Huguenots of France or the Jews of Spain.

Most cultures have traditionally offered hospitality to the stranger in need. Before the existence of nation-states, religious faith or a sense of common experience gave birth to concepts such as Christian refuge, Islamic sanctuary or African brotherhood. Temples, pagodas, churches, sometimes entire free cities represented potential havens. With the establishment of the modern state system, national governments increasingly assumed the asylum responsibility. Asylum constituted one of the early doctrines of international law and passed increasingly into practice to protect outcasts from forcible repatriation.

The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the number and impact of refugees. The numbers since 1945 are estimated to be as high as 60

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