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 million, more than twice the number of the preceding 50 years and far beyond any historical experience. In many states, refugee arrivals have shifted population patterns, altered domestic politics and shaped or even determined foreign policy. No serious study of such diverse regions as central Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East could be undertaken without considering the impact of refugees—both on the regions themselves and on the attitudes of others toward them.

To deal with this challenge, especially as it first emerged in Europe after World War II, the international community has created a widespread system of refugee protection and assistance, centered around the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and based on two international agreements ratified by almost 100 states: the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. These documents defined refugees as persons compelled to seek asylum abroad "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted." The 1969 Refugee Convention of the Organization of African Unity expanded that definition, for African refugees, to include those fleeing "external aggression, foreign occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order." These agreements have provided a legal foundation on which refugees can base their appeals for asylum. Internationally coordinated assistance arrangements have helped refugees survive in exile, and have enabled asylum states to sustain the impact of mass refugee arrivals, overcoming the potentially destabilizing effects of refugee crises and later permitting refugees to reestablish themselves in normal lives.

Today, however, the system designed to cope with the refugees that emerged from the debris of war, although modified and expanded in the face of subsequent crises, is strained by the dimensions of what has become an immense, tenacious and omnipresent phenomenon. The system was able to deal with one type of crisis—essentially a trans-European refugee flow—and even with many crises since, yet it is now laboring under a much wider burden, no different in its legal and humanitarian fundamentals but much broader and more complex in its dimensions and its demands.


Statistics reveal the basic extent of the problem. Some ten million refugees are now to be found on every continent and in virtually every country. They include not only exiled political figures, disaffected intellectuals, professionals and students, but millions of peasants, nomads, laborers and their families, fleeing for their convictions and often for their lives.

—The largest single refugee population is four million Afghans, almost three million in Pakistan and over a million in Iran.

—The next largest concentration is in the Horn of Africa, with perhaps a million and a quarter in Sudan, over half a million in Somalia and smaller but significant numbers in Ethiopia and Djibouti.

—More than a million refugees are scattered over 15 countries in central and east Africa, from Cameroon to Kenya, from the Central African Republic to Lesotho. The largest groups are in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Zaïre.

—Southeast Asia’s refugee population has been reduced to 150,000 as almost 1.5 million "boat people" and others who fled Indochina have moved to new homes in resettlement countries, but those who remain—and others who continue to arrive—still constitute a major problem for Thailand and other first asylum states.

—Countries in Latin America harbor over 300,000 refugees, the largest groups having fled from several Central American states into Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica.

—Over a million refugees live in the United States and over 300,000 in Canada. Most are Indochinese intending permanent settlement in North America, but there are many from other parts of the world as well. In addition, there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers in North America.

—Another million live in various other Asian and European countries of asylum or permanent settlement. There are major concentrations in Australia, Britain, China, France, West Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Virtually every one of those countries also faces major dilemmas dealing with new asylum seekers.

—Significant groups of refugees have found temporary asylum in dozens of other countries in north and west Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Omitted from this enumeration are the Palestinian refugees, numbering over two million. The United Nations and the international community at large have long considered the Palestinians as distinct from other refugee groups, and their fate has assumed significance far beyond their status as refugees.

Refugees are a reflection of our unsettled time. They spill forth out of the full range of foreign and domestic quarrels and upheavals, war, revolution, communal strife, the post-colonial struggle. Modern techniques of conflict and population control have driven more people than ever into exile because more feel or fear the effects of combat or repression. Stricter border delimitation and policing have meant that refugees now attract more attention and need more formal recognition than in the past. Refugees seem to have become an inevitable and often highly visible by-product of almost every conflict and every crisis.

The common drive that compels refugees to leave their homes is fear: fear for their lives, for their families, for their future. Their stories have a depressing, even numbing, sameness. They may have seen their houses, shops or land burned, seized, pillaged or invaded, their countrymen—often friends or relatives—taken away without explanation. They may have been expelled from their jobs or from their homes. Their lives may have been threatened. They may have been injured, raped or robbed in their escape, and that escape may have taken them over hundreds of miles and many borders. They may reach their country of refuge exhausted, emaciated or dying. They often care little what happens to themselves but will do anything to ensure a safe future for their children. They worry continuously about those they left behind.


What is most worrisome about the current refugee burden is not only the sheer number of refugees, however large it may be, but also the long periods of time that they have spent in asylum. The major exodus of the Indochinese refugees came in 1978 and 1979, but many still remain in camps. Most refugees in Pakistan and Iran fled between 1979 and 1981, as did those in Somalia. Major refugee groups in many other African asylum countries arrived in massive numbers as far back as the mid-1970s. Though new refugees constantly appear, the substantial majority of today’s refugees have been in exile for five years or more. Most have little immediate prospect of going home or moving on.

The long-lasting refugee presence in many countries has fundamentally altered the nature of the global refugee problem. It has kept aid requirements at a continuously high level. In 1970, the annual budget of the U.N. High Commissioner was $8 million; by the mid-1970s, it had grown to around $50 million. Since 1980, the budget has consistently stood between $400 and $500 million. Other international organizations with significant refugee assistance programs, such as the World Food Program or the Intergovernmental Committee on Migration, have also seen their budgets grow. So have a number of voluntary agencies.

Efforts to find durable solutions continue, whether by returning refugees voluntarily to their countries of origin, settling them in countries of asylum, or resettling them in third countries. In the last five years, major refugee groups have been able to return to Argentina, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Some limited repatriation has been possible in Southeast Asia. Many refugees, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, have repatriated informally in the Horn of Africa.

Refugees have also in many instances settled permanently in their countries of first asylum, especially in Africa where numerous countries have generously offered land, permanent residence and even citizenship. Hundreds of thousands have settled in Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaïre and Zambia. During the summer of 1985, for example, Tanzania formally accepted the settlement of 35,000 Barundi refugees in the highlands of western Tanzania at Mishamo, an agricultural project almost as large as the state of Rhode Island. Most Indochinese refugees have moved to resettlement countries in North America, Europe and Asia, and for other refugee groups there has also been some, though more limited, settlement in third countries.

These steps have not, however, reduced the total world refugee population because some of the largest groups have stayed in place and even grown, and new groups have appeared. From July 1984 to July 1985 alone, about 550,000 new refugees arrived in the Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Sudan, Zaïre and Zimbabwe, with smaller groups or individuals arriving in dozens of other countries. The global number of refugees has thus remained constant at a very high level. As crisis has followed crisis, and as new conflicts have obscured old ones, the world has been unable fully to absorb the consequences of one refugee flow before being faced with yet another.

Around seven million refugees, the overwhelming majority, wait out their asylum in camps, where aid can be provided to large numbers of needy persons in a systematic manner. Yet an extended stay in a camp can have detrimental effects on refugees even if their protection, nutrition, medical and basic education needs are met.

Camp life disrupts normal patterns of existence, especially in traditional societies, disturbing or threatening established family and community roles. Men can no longer work, trade, farm or otherwise provide. Women cannot take care of their homes and gardens. Professional persons cannot pursue careers. Children cannot practice their customarily assigned tasks, such as herding, chores or handicrafts. Refugees can suffer deeply from prolonged dependency; extended camp life robs human beings of the opportunity for purposeful activity for themselves and their families, the pride of being useful. From the visible emergency of flight, camp refugees pass to the invisible emergency of stagnation.

To escape from dependency, many male refugees leave the camps, sometimes abandoning their families for long periods or permanently. Some look for employment in neighboring villages or towns. Nomads take the remnants of their herds and flee to the open countryside, relying on the camp system only for essential supplies such as medicine and care for their families. Other refugees leave for educational opportunities or to try to reach other countries. They may even go home on a temporary and clandestine basis. A growing number of men do not come to camps in the first place but immediately attempt to find asylum in distant countries. Ultimately, only the most vulnerable and most dependent remain.

The effect of large, standing refugee populations on the response to new refugee crises can be as troubling as the effect on the refugees themselves. Donors the world over may turn their attention away from old problems and provide insufficient financial support and resettlement opportunities. With available resources already stretched tightly, they sometimes must meet new crises by reallocating funds from ongoing programs. In 1985, for the first time in memory, the High Commissioner has had to make major reductions in planned relief programs for long-standing refugee populations because funds have not been available. Since existing resources have to be used to pay for basic survival needs, less can go toward enduring solutions. Dependency is only prolonged.


Not only has the nature of the refugee problem changed, but also its location. The primary concentration has moved from Europe to the Third World. The overwhelming majority of refugees are now from developing countries and have found asylum in developing countries. Forty percent are in countries listed as "least developed" by the United Nations; these societies are ill-prepared to bear the shock of refugee arrivals, with their political, economic and ecological consequences. If refugees are unable to go home or to move on, those same countries must also bear the long-term effects of the refugee presence.

A visit to virtually any refugee camp or settlement area in such a country is a sobering experience. As one approaches, one enters an empty expanse of many miles—dusty in the dry season, slick with mud after the rains—where trees, shrubs and other vegetation have disappeared as refugees have scoured for firewood. Nearby hospitals or clinics may have many of their beds occupied by refugees while national citizens have to wait. Secondary schools are crowded with refugee children. Roads or tracks in the area are cracked and rutted by heavy trucks bearing relief supplies. The area and the people around the camps feel the impact of the refugees’ presence in their daily lives. When there are many camps, entire provinces and even countries can be affected.

Prolonged refugee stays deepen the dilemma. The government of the asylum country and the local population might regard a large refugee presence, with its effect on their resources, as an acceptable burden over the short run. But, even if they originally welcomed the refugees, they begin to express serious concern if they sense that they themselves are being continually crowded out and disadvantaged. They see their environment ravaged. They fear that refugees will lower wages and raise prices. They are often envious of some of the care received by refugees, especially in medicine and special foods.

The presence of large long-term refugee populations in Third World countries generates four different but related types of demands:

—The cost of refugee care in those environments is high. The asylum countries have little to share. Virtually all supplies must be brought in, often from far away and sometimes, in emergencies, by air. Food, tents, blankets, medicines, all basic necessities, have to come from abroad, because the asylum country either does not have them or they could not be made available through local markets without escalating prices. Even if the cost for each individual refugee is low, the total assistance requirement is vast. This has been a principal factor driving up refugee relief budgets over the past few years.

—Substantial resources are needed to overcome damage to the local infrastructure. Governments of the African asylum countries during the second Conference on International Assistance to Refugees in Africa, held in Geneva in July 1984, presented a number of requests for various infrastructural projects to compensate for the presence of refugees. The projects included new or expanded hospitals, schools, roads and water systems, as well as reforestation and irrigation.

—Projects for local settlement of refugees require considerable resources to get started. Although refugees need not be regarded as a permanent drain on asylum countries, since they are able as well as anxious to work once they get over the trauma of flight, they cannot become productive in developing countries without some services and infrastructure to permit them to work effectively.

—As evidenced in the current African famine crisis, refugee populations cannot be helped in isolation when the surrounding population is also suffering. Local villagers have at times settled in large numbers around refugee camps to share refugees’ food and water. They have blocked relief shipments to call attention to their own needs. Concerned that refugees were carrying epidemics, they have insisted on also obtaining medicines originally intended for refugees. Such requests cannot reasonably be denied.

Long-lasting refugee problems in developing countries, therefore, engender assistance requirements that are longer in duration as well as greater in scope and complexity than those known in Europe during the postwar era or those experienced in the briefer refugee situations of the past. But the requirements must be met if the refugees are to be accepted, to remain any length of time or to settle permanently. Moreover, the lines between aid to refugees and national development cannot be neatly drawn. Both the refugees and the nationals may need assistance, but these different forms of aid come from different sources, through separate channels, and according to a whole range of planning and implementation schedules. Coordination can be and has been a formidable problem.


The refugee problems in the Third World cannot, however, be confined and isolated there, with the industrialized donor nations providing aid and selecting qualified refugees for resettlement on an orderly basis while the vast bulk of the refugees remain in camps. With rapid communication and air travel, the refugee problems of the Third World are being visited on the industrialized democracies in a new and intrusive manner, in the form of a dramatic upsurge in the number of asylum applicants arriving directly from far away.

Over the last few years, and especially in 1984 and the first half of 1985, there has been a pronounced rise in the number of persons from the Third World applying for asylum in the West, particularly Western Europe. The level of asylum applicants in Western Europe had remained constant, between about 20,000 and 35,000, during much of the 1970s. It surged in 1979 and 1980, reaching a 1980 high of 150,000, largely because the world recession led a number of unemployed foreign workers to apply for asylum so as to avoid repatriation. After that peak, application numbers declined, although not to the previous level. In 1984 they leaped up again to 103,000 and have been running at an even higher level during the first six months of 1985. To help respond to the crisis, High Commissioner Poul Hartling called a special seminar on asylum seekers in Europe in May 1985.

The current applicants are not only greater in number but also different in origin from the past. Formerly, at least two-thirds of the asylum seekers in Western Europe came from Eastern or southeastern Europe. Now, two-thirds come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, from Ethiopia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria and Zaïre. In 1984, persons from almost 100 different countries sought asylum in France, Britain and West Germany. Many applicants fly directly to major European airports from distant countries of origin or asylum. Once in Europe, they move on by train, car or ferry. They apply for asylum at airports or border entry points. Some attempt to make their way to North America, but few are able to afford the ticket and to obtain the documentation needed before they can get on a flight to Canada or the United States. North American asylum applicants still come predominantly from the western hemisphere, but pose problems similar to those faced by the West European asylum countries.

The number of new arrivals in Western Europe or North America is small compared to the number of refugees arriving in African and Asian countries over the same span of time, but it still far exceeds the capacity of Western countries even to process the flow, especially when asylum applicants have no documentation and come from distant places where the details of their claims are hard to investigate and even harder to substantiate. In recent times, for example, the backlog of applicants in West Germany was 100,000, in Switzerland 22,000 and in the United States 150,000.

Such backlogs only encourage further applications. Since refugees often lose everything in flight, many Western nations give asylum seekers special benefits, including temporary housing, modest living allowances, work permits and freedom of movement while their applications are being considered. Those privileges were intended as minimum humanitarian compensation to persons who had nothing left. They now often appear, however, as a magnet for migrants—all the more powerful when backlogs delay processing. Migrants know that by applying for asylum they not only improve their chances for admission but can draw on various forms of support for a long time while they try to establish a permanent foothold, no matter what may be the final decision on their asylum claim.

There have been instances in which asylum applicants have arrived in whole planeloads, deliberately destroying their travel documents before arrival, or have attempted to travel from one asylum country to another on fraudulent documentation. Public opinion in the asylum countries resents these abuses of the asylum process, suspects commercial exploitation and begins to question the bona fides of all asylum applicants.

It is important to distinguish migrants from refugees. Migration has, in itself, been one of the major phenomena of the twentieth century. Since 1900 an estimated 150-175 million persons—other than refugees—have migrated, many of them permanently but many others as temporary foreign workers in the industrialized or industrializing countries. The migrant stream has helped fuel economic progress over the past 40 years in Western Europe, North America and the Middle East. Those regions long welcomed migrants as low-cost laborers willing to take jobs scorned by others.

With the economic slowdown in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, many industrialized countries have accepted fewer migrants and temporary foreign workers, and some of the migrants have indeed tried to enter as refugees. Moreover, many refugees, like many migrants, want to settle in the industrialized democracies of the northern hemisphere because they hope to find a safe, free and promising future there. Unlike migrants, however, refugees leave their homes because of fear, not because of opportunity. Whereas migrants travel to escape stagnation and poverty, refugees travel to escape persecution, conflict, and perhaps death. Migrants seek opportunity. Refugees seek haven. A migrant does not wish to return home; a refugee does not dare.

In recognition of this difference, asylum countries have generally made careful distinctions between migrants and refugees, trying to ensure that asylum is granted to those who need it but not to others. They base their decisions on the information provided by the asylum seekers and on their own knowledge and perception of conditions in the asylum seekers’ countries of origin. Entry procedures vary from country to country, but usually include a central office that decides on the criteria for regular immigrants as well as refugees. The authorities attempt to determine if the asylum seeker, in accordance with the refugee definition, cannot return to his or her country of origin because of a "well-founded" fear of being persecuted. They are deeply conscious of the example that they set and of the standards that they have helped to establish and propagate, since the asylum nations are among the founders of the current international system for protecting and assisting refugees. They normally try to give the benefit of the doubt to asylum applicants since forcible return can have the most serious consequences.

Nonetheless, as popular skepticism has grown, national authorities have been under intense pressure to curtail entry. Asylum officials also find it easier to be convinced that persons are really in danger when they come from countries near at hand, where conditions that might expose the applicants to persecution are broadly understood and appreciated, and when asylum applicants are from familiar nationalities. Judgments become more difficult, and more controversial, when asylum seekers come from far away. In this respect, the jet refugee is at a particular disadvantage.

Beyond migrants and traditional refugees, a third group has now begun to emerge clearly. They are persons who may not be specifically and personally targets of persecution under the terms of the 1951 convention, but who flee the random cruelties that war, civil disturbance and revolution inflict upon the innocent as well as the partisans. Such persons are often described not as refugees but as "humanitarian" cases, persons who may not be subject to the pointed fear of personal persecution but who are, indeed, at risk in the country from which they flee. Many of those persons are urban professionals, anxious to avoid the stultifying experience of a semi-permanent camp or dormitory existence while they await resettlement. They want to get directly into a Western country.

These three streams—migrants, refugees, and "humanitarian" cases—are now crossing and occasionally merging. It has become the solomonic task of overburdened immigration authorities, appeals boards and courts in the traditional asylum and resettlement countries of Western Europe and North America to establish what person fits properly into what stream and to take appropriate action.

The industrialized democracies are granting asylum to those persons who are clearly seen as victims of persecution. They are rejecting persons who are clearly seen as migrants, dismissing them by the oxymoron "economic refugees." With respect to the third category, the "humanitarian" cases, the asylum countries have reacted with some hesitation and in various ways. They may grant refugee status in specific hardship cases. They may refuse refugee status but permit the applicants to remain temporarily in a kind of legal limbo. They may deport applicants either to their countries of origin or to some other countries where the applicants stopped on the way. Since those transit countries often feel no particular responsibility to readmit the asylum seekers, the latter become "refugees in orbit," individuals or families shuttling from airport to airport and from one immigration counter to another, modern Flying Dutchmen searching for a place to rest.

Over the last 40 years, refugees have traveled farther and farther away from their countries of origin in geographic, cultural and ethnic terms. As they come from distant areas not in the public spotlight, the problems that they are fleeing are less known or are differently perceived. The "jet people" are not accepted as the "boat people" were. Countries that were and are willing to make considerable sacrifices to support refugees abroad or to select refugees for permanent settlement are reluctant to grant asylum to all those who come directly and from far away.

A long humanitarian tradition could be in jeopardy, even in nations that have been the most generous pillars of the international system for refugee support. All applicants for refugee status may not really need asylum, but they must at least be given a fair chance to state their case and to be sympathetically heard if international refugee conventions are to have any meaning. In the backlash against all foreigners, not only could refugees risk being returned to face persecution, but the world could risk losing global asylum concepts and practices that many states, organizations and individuals have over the years worked or suffered to achieve.


The nature of the refugee issue has been transformed in very fundamental ways over four decades. It has grown from a continental to a global problem, from one that could be kept at a distance to one that may be very near. The world’s refugee population has expanded manyfold. It has changed from a transient to a semi-static population. Assistance requirements have multiplied. Any crisis anywhere can now produce refugees everywhere. The resulting problems now need close and urgent attention.

Solutions to these problems cannot and will not be found quickly or easily, since they have arisen out of a combination of political, sociological and technical realities that are not likely to be altered or reversed soon, if at all. Therefore, currently available measures cannot solve the problem but they should at least offer some hope for alleviating human distress. Among the steps to be taken are the following:

—making clear to concerned publics and governments how the refugee problem has evolved over the last several years. All agencies, whether private, official or international, need to make sure that their constituencies understand that long-standing refugee groups must not be consigned to oblivion by neglect or fatigue.

—organizing refugee assistance to cope simultaneously with emergencies, long-lasting refugee situations, and more concentrated efforts at durable solutions. Given the present budgetary environment in the donor countries, this must all be done in the most cost-effective manner.

—improving coordination between agencies involved in refugee relief and those involved in other forms of assistance, from emergency to development, within and outside the United Nations.

—expanding efforts for voluntary repatriation, local settlement or third country resettlement. As part of this effort, the proportion of assistance budgets devoted to such solutions should be increased.

—introducing more productive activities for refugees where such solutions are not available, in ways that support rather than undercut the economies of asylum countries.

—assigning highest priority to the processing of asylum applications in all asylum countries, devoting the necessary resources and making decisions as rapidly as possible consistent with fairness and thorough consideration of each case. This should discourage spurious applications, enable truly needy asylum applicants to leave the state of uncertainty in which many now find themselves, and also reduce support costs for pending cases.

—examining the relationship between refugee status, as defined in internationally agreed conventions, and the status of those whose applications for asylum rest on "humanitarian" considerations. This should be done through continuous international consultations without altering the current refugee definition that has served well. It must also be done in such a way that refugees from distant countries are not regarded as less deserving of asylum merely because they come from far away.

These steps cannot in themselves solve the global refugee problem. They can, however, reverse current trends and offer some confidence that we are moving in the right direction to help those in need and to avoid stagnation. Several steps are already under way, and others should follow.

The solutions also complement and reinforce each other because the problems are linked. Reducing long camp stays by instituting durable solutions sooner can help stem refugee flight to more distant asylum countries and can help to relieve public concern in the present asylum countries about the refugee presence. Assisting the poorer asylum countries to bear the infrastructural impact of refugees can help to promote local solutions and further reduce the number needing to look elsewhere for settlement. Helping public opinion in Western asylum countries to surmount current fears of being overrun by migrants posing as refugees should sustain the readiness of those countries and their people to assist refugees everywhere.

The entire system of refugee protection and support rests on a foundation of voluntary action and willing sacrifice. Assistance for refugees comes from voluntary funds, in part from private sources but now mainly from governments because of the immensity of the needs. Many agencies and persons from many countries and backgrounds work with refugees under grueling conditions in camps, villages, towns or settlements. Individuals, families and organizations—secular and religious—receive refugees, care for them and help to plead their cause. Young people just out of high school or college, as well as retired professionals such as administrators, doctors or dentists, reinforce the human touch that is essential in dealing with persons desperately worried about their future. The housewife in the station wagon who greets a Vietnamese refugee family in California or New Zealand, the camp worker in Pakistan or Sudan, the nurse in Thailand or Zaïre, the volunteer relief assistant in France, Germany or Sweden, all form part of an extensive, undocumented but essential chain of welcome and care for refugees. It is vital that this chain not be broken.

The new characteristics of the refugee situation have not invalidated the basic principles by which refugees have historically been received and helped. Nations have in the past found ways to respect refugees and treat them fairly. Over the last few decades, a considerable structure for protection and assistance has developed to perform the traditional tasks in accordance with the requirements of our particular age. It did not develop during times of peace and prosperity but during times of crisis, fear and mass population movements as disturbing then as those we know today. The structure has to date accomplished its mandate. It has evolved as necessary. It can evolve further to meet present and future needs. What it cannot do, and must not do, is to abandon principles and policies that have served both stability and humanity.

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  • W. R. Smyser is an American diplomat serving as United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
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