Crisis highlights persistent problem of refugees

The TV images of Kosovar Albanian refugees are at once troubling, saddening and all too familiar. Among other things, the 20th Century will be remembered for the masses of people who have been forced to flee man-made famine, war and genocide. A century’s worth of displaced people and refugees stand as a stark reminder of the failure – or unwillingness – of modern ideologies to accommodate human diversity.

If a lesson can be drawn from this, the century of the refugee, it is that refugees – with very few exceptions – don’t go home. In many cases, the places to where the refugees have fled have benefited from their skills and energy. More often, after the initial humanitarian impulse has passed, refugees float permanently at the very margins of society, denied passports, citizenship, identity; almost by definition the refugee is reviled, hated and despised.

What is seemingly different about the current situation in Kosovo is a commitment by the United States and its NATO allies to use force to allow refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing and the threat of genocide to go home. While this was not the initial reason the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro began two weeks ago, it has become the most salient and problematic feature of the crisis.

But an unasked question of this ostensibly moral project is what will it cost?

In terms of money, current Pentagon estimates put a $2 billion price tag on the war effort just this year alone. This number would increase astronomically in the event of ground-based invasion.

However, the ultimate price may be much higher. Whether Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic accedes to NATO demands or NATO “wins” the air war, if the refugees go home, they will be accompanied by a permanent armed force that will be the target of either Kosovan rebels, fighting for independence, or Serbian forces, fighting for Serbia, or even both. For many years, if not decades, NATO “peacekeepers” will be caught in a deadly cross fire and before this is all done, many more Americans, Italians, Germans, Serbians and Albanians will have died.

Upon their return home, the Albanian refugees would be faced with widespread destruction and the daunting presence of Serbian refugees from other parts of the former Yugoslavia who have been surreptitiously settled in Kosovo. Since a key feature of the ethnic cleansing process in province has been the obliteration of identity papers, title deeds and passports, it will be very difficult to separate natives from the recent immigrants. Such a radical alteration of the demographic balance in the province would institutionalize communal violence. Would NATO round the Serb refugees up and forcibly expel them too – ethnically re-cleansing Kosovo?

Faced with such obvious problems, it is hard to imagine the American public – and those of the other NATO countries – tolerating a lengthy commitment to Kosovo and its refugees.

A more probable scenario is that the military effort will fail – as it did in Iraq – and that most of the 600,000 Kosovo Albanians now in refuge in Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania will be added to the permanent population of refugees from the 10-year Balkan war. Like those who have preceded them, they face the dismal prospect of permanent legal limbo, the promise – or threat – of repatriation held always above their heads.

This brings up the most important question of cost. Ultimately, what is more dear, allowing the victims of barbarity permanent asylum in the West – letting them live among us – or an expensive war with dubious aims, fought in a questionable way?

We can only hope to keep people from becoming refugees in the first place by consistently punishing those who commit genocide and by upholding a policy of human rights and economic justice. Once created, however, a refugee problem must be taken on its own terms. The challenge of finding a permanent home for refugees – not just from the current conflict in Kosovo, but also for those from the whole gamut of ongoing situations in Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia – will be among the most vexing issues faced in the next century. It will call upon us to rethink 19th Century notions of political sovereignty and national identity and explore concepts of trans-national responsibility.

Regardless, the choice of if and when to return must be left up to the refugees themselves.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this time they can and will go home.

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