Wretched rebuke to the West

The Price of Indifference
September 27, 2002

The late 20th century witnessed a series of major humanitarian disasters, responsible for numerous deaths, large numbers of refugees and political instability. In cases such as Rwanda and Bosnia, international intervention to stop the killings only made the situation worse. In Kosovo, and recently in Afghanistan, external military involvement dramatically increased the numbers of refugees, raising fears for the stability of the surrounding countries in which they were seeking refuge. Humanitarian needs and military strategies vied for priority in policy-making. When peace was declared, populations returned to wastelands and competing claims on land and property. Some refugees may never return. In this book, Arthur Helton addresses whether it is inevitable that such scenarios will repeat themselves in the 21st century.

Helton is a senior fellow for refugee studies and preventive action in the Council on Foreign Relations, New York. The book jacket stresses that the "Council takes no institutional position on policy issues and has no affiliation with the US government". However, Helton's organisational background opens doors to the very top level of American and international policy-makers. The book is endorsed by Richard Holbrooke, Kofi Annan and Sadako Ogata. It is this penetration of the international network that makes it so valuable for academics.

The ideological competition of the cold war encouraged defectors, and refugees from places such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia were welcomed in the West. As the cold war receded, policies in the West turned to containing migration. Rather than encouraging population flows, western countries are enacting increasingly stringent criteria for accepting and supporting refugees. However, at the same time, they are acknowledging humanitarian issues. Indeed, notions of human rights are often used to justify international interventions - both political and military.

Helton starts his book by giving an overview of why refugees matter, drawing on a range of examples to back his analysis - a hallmark of the book. As he shows, refugees matter for humanitarian reasons but also for reasons of state. Refugees "reflect failures in governance and international relations" and "personify human insecurity". Helton is clear that in this new century there will be more population displacements and more demands for effective responses by both international bodies and governments. It is the need for new and comprehensive approaches that provides the book's raison d'être .

The former Yugoslavia is used for in-depth analysis because it has "provided a real-time crucible in which to mix new refugee policies". Helton identifies a range of important new responses: delivery of humanitarian assistance in the midst of armed conflict, creation of putative safe areas, and arrangements for temporary relocation abroad, with refugee policies then subsumed into efforts to build successor states.

He uses interviews with key personnel involved in policy-making and implementation to further his analysis. Drawing on the US Interagency Review of 2000, he highlights the problematic relationship between the military and humanitarian agencies in Kosovo and the lessons that can be learnt from these experiences. On the subsequent state-building he broadens his focus to include Cambodia, Haiti and East Timor.

He then develops his argument about why decision-makers should care about anticipating and responding to forced migration emergencies. It is in the interest of western countries - particularly the US - to promote a stable and moral world: the financial costs of these emergencies are great, the ensuing political instability is dangerous, and there is a threat to international peace and security.

Helton acknowledges that western countries face different considerations, depending on the location, size and political consequences of emergencies, and that they should therefore have available a "policy toolbox". This should reflect a careful examination of past successes and failures and recognise obstacles in the systems of international governance. He examines the operation of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya over the past ten years to identify the need for more effective humanitarian action if vast numbers of refugees are not to "be condemned to wasted and fearful lives in like circumstances". He then looks at territorial protection abroad - asylum - considering the barriers to this that are being erected, such as "fortress Europe", and questioning the development of holding areas such as those employed recently by the Australian government. Internal protection, in the guise of safe or security zones has some possibilities, but these need to be adequately enforced.

At the core of Helton's analysis is the need for coordination within and between organisations. This kind of coordination is most severely tested in "circumstances where there is no adequate legal or institutional framework for policy formulation or implementation". Coordination debates often mask fights over money, personnel, programmes and control, and Helton acknowledges a long history of these in responses to refugee crises. He charts organisational developments over the past decade within the various arms of the United Nations and identifies the continuing obstacles to meaningful coordination in both the UN and in the US government. He recommends "creative thinking about how to address future contingencies which range from the likely to the remote".

With complex emergencies on the rise, Helton's proposal for an inter-governmental policy research body has credibility. If mistakes are not to be repeated, then proactive refugee policy needs to be developed, based on careful research and evaluation of past actions. This book provides an analytical approach to refugee policy-making that will be invaluable to students in politics, international relations and refugee studies.

Patricia Ellis is senior lecturer in refugee studies, University of East London.

The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century

Author - Arthur C. Helton
ISBN - 0 19 925030 8 and 925031 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 314

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