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Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939; e-mail:

Refugee manipulation an ethical dilemma for humanitarian aid

The refugees had lived in a lush valley where they grew fruits and vegetables until the civil war came. Routed by rebels of another ethnic group, some of the refugees now carry out terrorist attacks across the cease-fire line. They try to keep their fellows from returning home, believing it will be easier to mount an attack of the new government if the refugees don't return home. Both sides in the battle, however, allow them to return home for harvest season.

This story of migrant Georgians, initially displaced by a civil war with Abkhans in 1992-93, was one of many examples of refugee manipulation summarized at a symposium on the ethics of humanitarian aid to refugees at the Bechtel Conference Center on Nov. 4.

Not a session for the faint of heart, the symposium aired the dirty linen of humanitarian work with refugees. Sponsored by Stanford's Program in Ethics in Society and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), the discussion was an attempt to begin grappling with the ethical dilemmas of current international law and practices related to refugees.

Tens of thousands of displaced Georgians are "manipulated into a kind of permanent forced relocation," said Catherine Dale, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkley who is part of a U.N. observer team in the former Soviet Union country of Georgia. The warring sides Abkhaz police who control the Georgian province of Abkhazia and the displaced Georgian militias let the refugees go home temporarily, she said, because both sides depend on their harvest labor for survival. "It's a brilliant exercise in labor exploitation," she told the Stanford audience.

The government of Georgia and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees contribute to keeping the refugees in a state of limbo, she said, by carrying out special registration and aid qualification programs, which have the effect of distinguishing them from the local population.

Manipulation of refugee populations is not new but "international actors haven't yet faced up to the ethical and policy implications of it," said Stephen Stedman, a senior research scholar of civil warfare at Stanford's CISAC. Humanitarian aid often permits warring groups to wage war longer, he said, so that saving lives today can cost more lives down the road.

The United States, for example, was among those who contributed humanitarian aid to refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1970s and '80s. "That aid took the Khmer Rouge from the brink of oblivion and made them a legitimate actor in the Cambodian civil war," Stedman said. The United States also armed Afghan refugees who fought against the Soviet Union, and just this year considered arming Albanian rebels who were recruiting young males in U.N.-sponsored refugee camps.

"People don't always understand that the neutrality of humanitarian aid stands opposed to solidarity" with a refugee group, he said. "When it's refugees we like, we think it's OK to further their cause." When we disagree, he said, "we think aid should be only humanitarian and [politically] neutral."

One of the problems is that international law related to refugees was written for the Cold War era, said Margaret McGuinness, a recent graduate of Stanford Law School who is a former foreign service officer. States were expected to take in people who were persecuted by the governments of other states. Now, most refugees are running from civil conflicts within states, she said.

Leaders of rebellions need refugees to legitimize their campaigns, Stedman said, and often hold them hostage, forcing them to pay taxes or "volunteer" for fighting. The militias who caused the recent destruction of East Timor, for example, now control the refugee camps in West Timor, he said. "They have an enormous potential to regroup there and be a constant threat to East Timor. If you care about East Timor, you have to convince your national government to take some action, because in the end, it still comes down to individual countries making the decision about whether to support an action."

Refugees often jeopardize economic and political stability in host countries, and they have been the "catalyst" for a war that is virtually continent-wide in Africa, said Howard Adelman, founder of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Canada. The 1994 refugee camps for Rwandans in Zaire led to the toppling of Zaire's government, he said, and have led to all sorts of military aid alliances since. Many of those camps were controlled by the former Rwandan military and militia members who had committed the genocide in Rwanda earlier and who wanted to keep the refugees out of Rwanda in order to launch a renewed attack, he said.

But Adelman cautioned against seeing refugees only as victims of manipulation and violence, because they also can take independent action. "My own interpretation of what happened in Zaire [when 673,000 refugees suddenly returned to Rwanda] is that the refugees finally got fed up with their own leaders and left." He suggested host countries are better off giving refugees citizenship rights than allowing them to remain in statelessness and hopelessness, as Lebanon did with the Palestinians and Pakistan is doing now with Afghans.

Other manipulators include foreign countries and corporations, international aid agencies and international media, Adelman said. In Zaire, French and American companies gave assistance to some groups in hopes of earning more profits from the country's minerals.

"One of the greatest manipulators of refugees are the media because suffering sells," Adelman said. Media reports sometimes exaggerate the suffering and, in particular, the numbers involved, he added.

Reporters did write about the Kosovo Liberation Army using Albanian refugee camps to recruit young males into service earlier this year, Stedman said. "But I never saw one editorial raising questions about [the ethics of] it."

There are few alternatives, Stedman said. One would be to "walk away from situations" where humanitarian efforts aid warring groups. Another would be to "establish standard conduct rules for rebels" before going in. The problem with the latter, he said, is that "there is no single negotiation point now, when so many aid groups rush in."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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