BANGLADESHIS made homeless by the forces of nature and the hundreds of thousands of Kurds still encamped in Turkey, Iran, and northern Iraq are only the latest examples of a world refugee problem now worse than at any time since the end of World War II.
Currently, there are some 15 million to 17 million refugees around the globe, according to United Nations estimates - double the number of 10 years ago. Many are in flight from floods or famine, but the majority are refugees from bitter civil conflicts. A disturbing number have been separated from their homes for years.
Traditionally, the world's humanitarian response to refugees has focused on food, shelter, and asylum. But as civil wars drag on year after year, refugee programs may need to take a broader approach to the problem, emphasizing conflict resolution and early return of refugees to their homes.
"Whether we can work on those solutions successfully will determine whether we're going to be sitting here five years from now with 15 or 16 million refugees, or whether we'll see a sharp downturn," says Princeton Lyman, refuge programs director of the United States Department of State.
The Kurdish situation may provide a key precedent for future efforts, establishing the right of the UN and the international community to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state when the plight of refugees demands it.
Roger Winter, director of the US Committee for Refugees, thinks such a right should be formally codified in international law.
"Any new world order worth its salt will have this," he says.
Today, refugees are a problem from the jungles of Central America to the deserts of the Middle East. The largest single group of refugees are Afghans. The war in Afghanistan has displaced an estimated 5 million people, many of whom have lived in Iran and Pakistan for over a decade.
Africa is perhaps the continent with the most widespread refugee problems. There are an estimated 5 million African refugees, the vast majority fleeing civil wars and insurgencies in Liberia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Mozambique, among other countries.
Poverty and poor harvests make the position of African refugees precarious. The UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said May 20 that a breakdown in the food pipeline in Ethiopia had put more than 1.2 million refugees at risk.
In Africa, says Ambassador Lyman, "logistics are so difficult, the distances are so great, and the infrastructure is so poor."
The world community has long depended heavily …