Courtesy Reuters

Rescuing the Refugees

A BROKEN SYSTEM

The reconstruction of Afghanistan presents a variety of unique problems, but it also illustrates the larger dilemmas that characterize most modern humanitarian emergencies. Around the globe, more people are displaced today than ever before, and the costs of assisting them are rising. The source of the problem, increasingly, is internal conflicts, in which Western powers often intervene. Indeed, both the concept of sovereignty and the nature of war are evolving, altering the landscape for humanitarian action in the process. Unfortunately, the institutions that deal with refugees have not yet adapted effectively to these new realities. The time has come for innovation.

Refugee crises now require new kinds of responses: feeding civilians while dodging bullets and bombs, using military force to organize safe havens, and even nation building alongside refugee repatriation. But the exclusively reactive international system for handling refugees is not designed to predict such changes and prepare for them. And the narrow focus on providing relief to the uprooted who have crossed national borders fails to acknowledge the fact that tens of millions of people around the world today are displaced within their home countries. The result is unnecessary expense, instability, humiliation, and suffering.

The old distinction, derived from U.N. treaties, between externally and internally displaced people is simply no longer viable. Nor is it any longer possible to ignore the link between crisis response and long-term development, or the need to coordinate policies among a bewildering array of national and international bodies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The U.N. has introduced a new mechanism for Afghanistan to deal with this latter problem, but it only scratches the surface of what is really required. How coordinated can the effort be when donors will give money through both multilateral and bilateral channels, international organizations and NGOs will jockey for roles and money, and relief work will run up against recovery and development plans? Making matters worse, all of this commotion will play out in a country without

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