The humanitarian aid that has flowed to refugees through international agencies since World War II is meant to feed, shelter, and provide legal protection from deportation or persecution to people fleeing conflicts. But this aid has often been twisted in such a way that it fueled conflict. In some cases the lure of aid has impelled militant groups to create huge refugee populations. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees spent two years in camps in Zaire controlled by Hutu militias before departing last November. They were caught in what is only the latest in a series of situations in which refugee aid has fed wars while attempting to abate their ravages.

Large numbers of refugees menaced by starvation and disease make for pathos and dramatic press that attract aid dollars from international humanitarian organizations and foreign governments. The aid that flows to the camps where the refugees are gathered can be skimmed by militants based in the camps, as well as local businesspeople and military and administrative officials of the host government. The packed camps, protected by international sympathy and international law, provide excellent cover for guerrillas and serve as bases from which they can launch attacks.


In 1945 the U.N. Charter laid out principles on refugees and humanitarian aid. Six years later the General Assembly established the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees to care for Holocaust survivors and others displaced by World War II. UNHCR clients now number 30 million, having increased by about two million a year for the last decade. A plethora of human rights, medical, and other nongovernmental groups like Save the Children, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision, and care have become powerful advocates for refugees and others needing humanitarian aid.

In dealing with refugee crises, aid workers generally see themselves as up to their elbows relieving the immediate human misery; political and military issues are for later resolution in capital cities by negotiators in suits. That there are militants among the refugees does not mean that all the civilians can be allowed to go hungry, aid workers reason. It is this instinct for compassion, among donors as well as workers, that militant groups rely on. In addition, although most of the aid workers are idealistic and underpaid, their organizations have carved out prestigious and profitable niches as suppliers, which can color their advocacy in crises.

Although much refugee relief money is raised from private sources, the biggest blocks of aid come from governments. In 1995 the United States contributed $383 million, the European Union $295 million, and Japan $151 million toward refugee aid, followed by other countries. During the Cold War, refugee aid became a government instrument in the struggle to contain communism. Anyone fleeing or opposing communism was likely to win Western asylum and aid. The United States liked to cloak at least some of its military aid to anticommunist insurgents as assistance to refugees. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, attempts have been made to redirect refugee aid back toward purely humanitarian goals, but some percentage still ends up with guerrillas.

U.S. and Saudi aid flowed in the 1980s to camps in Pakistan that housed three million Afghan refugees while serving as bases for mujahideen fighters battling Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. Fifteen thousand Soviet troops died, and two million Afghan civilians and mujahideen have been killed in fighting that continues even today.

During the 1978-91 conflict in Cambodia, the United States and other anticommunist nations funded refugee camps in Thailand that were bases for three Cambodian guerrilla forces fighting the Vietnamese-backed government -- one of them the Khmer Rouge, whose murderous rule sparked the 1978 Vietnamese invasion. Some 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers died in combat or from malaria during the more than 12 years of fighting; the number of rebels killed remains unknown.

On several trips between 1982 and 1991 during which I visited all the Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border, the unholy alliance between refugee aid and the resistance fighting the Vietnamese occupation army was apparent. Relief agencies delivered food, medicine, and other services to the Cambodian refugees by day. But at night, fighters returned to the camps to rest, eat the food and use the medical supplies the agencies had provided, sleep with their wives, visit with their children, and recruit well-fed young refugees. Aid workers would arrive the next day to find more young men vanished to the front lines and refugees who had dared to speak out beaten or intimidated.

In the 1970s and 1980s Algeria supported, and the Green Crescent and other international humanitarian agencies helped supply, refugee camps for nomadic Saharoui people around Algeria's desert city of Tindouf. When I visited the camps in 1982, it was clear that they were controlled, through tribal front men, by the polisario guerrilla movement, which was engaged in fighting Moroccan troops who had occupied the former Spanish Sahara. polisario operated a small army of 5,000 to 10,000 fighters out of the camps. Nine years down the road, a cease-fire was put in place, but the refugees are still in Tindouf, awaiting a stalled U.N. election.

India allowed asylum and gave aid to Tamil refugees in its southern state of Tamil Nadu in the 1980s, fully aware that among the refugees were many militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group fighting a particularly bloody war against the Sri Lankan government. New Delhi sought to use the Tigers to destabilize the administration of Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, suspected of being pro-American. But India created a Frankenstein in the Tigers. More than a decade later, the group continues to plague Sri Lanka.

Recent refugee aid to regions of southern Sudan where rebels have risen against the government and to Sudanese refugee camps in neighboring nations is believed to have prolonged the fighting. Says Larry Minear of Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute:

In the first six months [in 1989], this aid prevented countless deaths from starvation and warfare. Yet more than five years later the war continues to victimize the civilian population. There is a growing realization that what is required first and foremost is not larger amounts of aid but rather augmented pressure for peace.

Many refugee analysts believe that aid has been substituted for political initiatives that would resolve the root causes of emergency migrations, be they war, ethnic conflict, famine, environmental damage, or economic imbalance.

In the continuing crisis in Africa's Great Lakes region, 1.5 million Rwandan and 300,000 Burundian refugees, most of them Hutu, fled to neighboring Zaire and Tanzania in 1994 after Hutu genocide against Tutsis had mobilized Tutsi-led rebels -- who had been refugees themselves for decades in Uganda -- to wage and win a civil war in Rwanda. The refugee camps in Zaire were controlled by ten thousand or more Hutu militiamen and former Rwandan army troops. From the camps, they launched attacks across the border against Rwanda's new Tutsi-dominated government. (The internal situation at the camps in Tanzania was the same, but Tanzanian troops prevented strikes against Rwanda.) France sent troops that protected the retreating Rwandan troops and militiamen and then backed them politically when they became guerrillas in the camps because it saw them as a possible vehicle for restoring a French-speaking regime in Kigali.

When Zairian Tutsis and other militants on their way to a takeover of Zaire smashed the camps last November, more than 500,000 of the inmates declined to follow the militias deeper into Zaire. Instead, they walked back home to Rwanda, telling reporters they had been held hostage for two years. Some claimed to be victims only because they were afraid of being blamed in the genocide against the Tutsis. But there is ample evidence that the guerrillas used physical and psychological coercion to keep them in the camps, including withholding news of the Rwandan government's promise of safe return and spreading propaganda warning that Tutsis would slaughter them if they tried to go back.

"This was more egregious than Cambodia," said Bob Devecchi, head of the International Rescue Committee, which supplied some of the sanitation and water services at the biggest camp near Goma, Zaire, under contracts with donor nations and UNHCR. "The way the camp was organized, it was militiamen who determined food distribution, access to hospitals. [Militia] police ran the camp. The refugees were more like hostages than refugees getting direct aid."

So blatant were the abuses in the camps that UNHCR for the first time allowed refugees in its care to be forced home -- at gunpoint. Soon after the Zairian rebels drove the refugees out of Zaire, Tanzania compelled the 500,000 Rwandan refugees in its territory to leave, despite their fears about what would happen to them if they returned to Rwanda.

The forced return of the Rwandans and the coerced return of reluctant Cambodians after the 1991 peace accord is in keeping with a change in attitude toward refugees. The welcome mat has not yet been pulled in, but there is a new hard line. Donors are tiring of endless refugee sagas. The first-asylum countries -- neighboring countries that refugees first flee to -- worry that refugee settlements will become permanent destabilizing pockets along their borders. Contributing to the newly tough attitude is the abuse and manipulation of humanitarian aid typified by the plight of the Rwandan refugees.


For two years in the Rwandan case, 13 years in the Cambodian, and nearly 50 years in the case of Lebanon, refugees have been maintained in a stateless limbo. Humanitarian sentiment being what it is, any guerrilla movement can co-opt international refugee aid for military, political, or even racist purposes so long as refugees are languishing in camps. In the dozen conflicts I've covered in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, the guerrilla leaders resorted so frequently to the following strategies for co-opting aid that they all seemed to have studied the same handbook of small insurgencies.

The first principle: Take on the semblance of victimhood. Refugees are consummate victims; therefore, persuade or coerce a sizable number of civilians to flee to a region within your country or in a neighboring country where your guerrilla force can control them yet hide among them. Hutu, Afghan, Palestinian, Nicaraguan, and other militants have stretched out their hands as victims and received humanitarian aid, then taken up weapons and launched wars, terrorism, and other forms of violence that have affected millions of people over the decades.

To uproot people and transform them into refugees, guerrilla groups may use propaganda, intimidation, incitement to ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, or a combination of these. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka demonstrate how to foment ethnic hatred to turn members of an integrated, moderate minority into refugees and radicalized militants. The Tigers' tactics have included terrorist murders of soldiers, incitement of Tamil youths to kill ethnic Sinhalese civilians and burn Sinhalese houses, and attacks on buses in which guerrillas separated out Tamil passengers and machine-gunned the rest. The Tigers have also targeted moderate Tamil leaders, intimidating them into silence or killing them to close the door on any peaceful resolution.

Ancient methods like burning villages and crops, salting fields, and killing livestock are used by both insurgents and governments to persuade people to flee their homes; land mines and rumors of poison gas are also effective. Rebels may provoke the enemy to such actions or they may carry them out against their own people, denying food and shelter to the advancing enemy and creating a useful refugee population at one blow.

The second principle: Seek the support of the first-asylum or host country by promising concessions in long-standing disputes over territory, trade, water, and the like, should your group win power. The Pashto-speaking Afghan mujahideen promised Pakistan they would drop claims on predominantly Pashto regions in northwest Pakistan. The Cambodians promised Thai generals Cambodian teak and gems. The Hutu promised Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko's regime that they would replace the aggressive, English-speaking Tutsi government in Rwanda with a compliant, French-speaking one.

Third principle: Bring in CNN and other world media outfits and show them the refugees' plight, guarding against unmonitored interviews in which refugees could disclose elements of coercion. Reporters may bridle at the limits and report them, but will also be compelled, as journalists, to air footage showing starvation and cholera. Even half the story is news.

Fourth principle: Reject measures to alleviate the refugees' suffering unless they further your movement's aim. Only allow camps to be set up within striking range of the enemy. Do not permit civilian aid workers to control the distribution of food. Refuse to disarm.

Fifth principle: Establish total control over information reaching the refugees. Saturate the camps with reports of atrocities against refugees' ethnic or political groups back home. Keep refugees in the dark about offers of amnesty or invitations to return.

Sixth principle: Seek out foreign allies that can block diplomatic recognition of, aid to, and trade with the enemy, as Arab countries did with Israel to support the Palestinian cause. These allies can supply your movement with passports, cash, weapons, and a mouthpiece in world bodies.


Countering such strategies will require major changes in the international community's response to migration crises spurred by conflict. Can governments, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations (ngos) such as the Red Cross refuse to play ball with guerrillas willing to allow tens of thousands to perish of cholera, hunger, and thirst? For Americans and Europeans who saw the televised images in 1994 of the smoky plain in Goma covered with 500,000 starving Rwandans -- men and women wrapping the bodies of their children and their elderly in straw mats to hurl them into mass graves -- a refusal to help would have seemed inhuman.

"What are we to do? Cut off humanitarian aid?" asks Dennis Gallagher, executive director of the Washington-based Refugee Policy Group. "I think you're seeing it's unthinkable."

The guerrillas in the camps in Zaire proved so noxious, however, that two of the most prominent relief organizations there -- Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee -- could not stomach the abuse of aid this time, and pulled out. Yet Bob Devecchi of the International Rescue Committee, who made the decision for his group, noted that U.N. officials immediately hired another NGO to administer the food handouts and other programs in the camps.

Guerrilla groups, knowing how difficult it is for relief organizations to deny aid, often thwart attempted solutions to refugee crises so as to assure themselves a steady flow of supplies. That happened in the Rwandan crisis, and in Somalia in 1992-93.

The situation in Zaire ended only when another group of guerrillas broke up the camps and sent the Hutu militiamen packing. A century ago, armies did not hesitate to apply this kind of ruthless solution. Demilitarization of camps should be a requirement for humanitarian aid, and if guerrillas would sooner see their people starve than surrender their arms, one alternative would be for some force to enter the camps and take the weapons away. Clearly, sovereignty questions arise here, especially since asylum countries often find it convenient to allow guerrillas to harass their neighbors. Even if that is not an obstacle, Western nations are unenthusiastic -- particularly the United States, after the deaths of 18 American soldiers diverted from a humanitarian to a military mission in Somalia in 1993. Concerns about sovereignty have delayed the creation of proposed international rapid-reaction units under U.N. auspices that could deal with such situations.

If no one is willing to separate fighters from refugees and a cutoff of aid remains unthinkable, aid might be tendered in innovative ways that make its abuse less likely. It could be laid in a trail to lure refugees away from guerrilla control, or given only to women and children. Rations and other services could be reduced to make camp life even less pleasant. Camps could be moved away from borders, although this would raise host countries' concerns about permanent settlements. Addressing such concerns would mean totally isolating the refugees from the local community so that they would not get comfortable in the country. Host countries would have to receive solid guarantees that the refugees would be resettled in third countries if they did not return home within a specified period.

Beyond this, it is vital that fundraising be separated from aid disbursement. All refugee aid should flow into undifferentiated coffers for disbursement by UNHCR, the Red Cross, or other impartial agencies. Appeals for specific groups of refugees should be ended, since they reward those who can produce the most pathetic images for TV and print.

A second crucial reform is a legal bar against humanitarian aid from any party actively involved in hostilities, enacted through amendments to international conventions. If the United States pumped food through refugee camps to anticommunist fighters, the United Nations would label it war aid, with the censure and possible sanctions that implies for both nations providing it and nations allowing it to traverse their territory. The onus of becoming a virtual belligerent in a conflict would stop many nations from allowing militants living among refugees to conduct hostilities against a neighboring state.

Other possible tactics include scattering refugees to reduce militia control and giving refugees an accurate picture of the situation back home through education and test visits by small groups that report back to their fellow refugees.

Regionwide conferences such as the Cambodia Peace Conference in Paris in 1991 could be called to resolve situations involving refugees. These would hold accountable any party fueling a conflict. Furthermore, exposure of aid abuse in donor nations' press and parliaments puts pressure on governments that support guerrilla wars from afar. Congress, for example, blocked aid to the Nicaraguan contras after news reports roused public opinion.

Countries like Iran that lack a free press or electorate will be harder to deter from using aid to fuel war. Even in the United States, some will argue that the two million Afghans who died in a war fed by humanitarian aid were the price of stopping communism. Those prepared to kill and die for a cause find little logic or honor in separating aid from the violent actions they deem necessary. But unless means are devised to ensure that aid serves only humanitarian purposes, millions of genuine refugees may no longer find compassion and support generously available.

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  • Ben Barber, State Department correspondent for The Washington Times, has also reported for the London Observer, USA Today, Newsday, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1991 he directed a study for the Refugee Policy Group of the U.N. plan to repatriate over 300,000 Cambodian refugees.
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