Refugees May Be Sent Home: U.N. Agency Faces Nations Tired of Paying

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The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is considering a shift in policy that would let millions of refugees be forced back to such places as Bosnia and Rwanda because host countries don't want them and donors won't pay for them.

Under a doctrine of "imposed return," refugees could be sent back "to less than optimal conditions in their home country" against their will, the UNHCR director of international protection, Dennis McNamara, said at a recent meeting with refugee analysts.

Imposed return has become necessary because of pressure from host states and a lack of money to care for refugees, Mr. McNamara said.

Refugee analysts said the concept of imposed return, which Mr. McNamara unveiled at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, is a major shift in in the treatment of refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, signed by 130 countries, including the United States.

"Our doctrine will say that if the UNHCR has access and can monitor conditions and there is fundamental safety, we'll approve" sending refugees back, Mr. McNamara said. "We expect it to be highly criticized. But it's a fact of life because it is unavoidable."

Tanzania and Zaire want to return 1.7 million refugees who fled Rwanda in 1994. European nations, espeically Germany, want to return about 1 million Bosnians. Iran and Pakistan still are hosts to 2.4 million Afghans.

These and other host governments say that with the fighting over in their homelands, the refugees should be forced to return.

But the Refugee Convention, an instrument of international law, requires countries to grant asylum to anyone with a "legitimate fear of persecution" on the grounds of race, religion or political views.

The agreement was drawn up in part because of shame over World War II. Though Hitler boasted that he would take drastic measures against Jews, the United States, France, Britain and other nations sealed their borders.

A senior U.S. official said imposed return is one of many options the Clinton administration is reviewing.

"We're going to be considering things like this because there is tension between our international commitments and what we stand for as a country and the pressure of too many people wanting to come in and some of them abusing some of the principles we have upheld," the official said.

"All countries which have offered refugee protection or asylum are facing . . . pressure from their own people to stop. These are issues we faced with Cubans and Haitians and people from Central America coming up during the problems."

Haitian and Cuban boat people are being returned by U.S. ships. Central Americans are fighting to remain in the United States.

The UNHCR approved the not-too-willing return of about 250,000 Burmese refugees from camps in Bangladesh after Rangoon allowed human rights monitors to make sure they would be safe.

Some 350,000 Cambodian refugees returned from Thailand in 1992 after the civil war ended and a U.N. peacekeeping mission supervised elections.

In neither case was the situation perfect. Burma's government remains arbitrary, violent and intolerant of dissent. Cambodia must deal with land mines, Khmer Rouge guerrillas and a weak justice system. In both cases, the refugees faced moves to expel them by host countries that felt they had done their part.

"We've got to bend and bend around the concept of imposed return," said Denis Gallagher, executive director of the Refugee Policy Group, a research organization that advises the U. …