Feeding Refugees, or War?

Courtesy Reuters

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

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