Today there are millions of people doomed to remain in barbed-wire camps without the rights or protection of any nation. They are neither criminals nor prisoners of war. Rather, they are the unfortunate victims of international dislocation and revolution. These refugees cannot appeal to any court or law; they depend on the mercy of national whims and humanitarian groups.
The first severe refugee dislocation came when over a million people poured out of Russia following the Bolshevik revolution. The first World War added countless additional burdens, yet no large organized effort was made to case the situation until 1920 when the League of Nations appointed Dr. Fridtjof Nansen as High Commissioner for refugees. For ten years he was the driving force behind resettlement efforts.
Unfortunately his work was plagued by lack of funds and the peculiar logic of a politically-motivated League. Since a refugee was the enemy of one state, a desire for international harmony led the League to regard him as the enemy of all. As a result the dislocated person was tolerated instead of helped, and the Refugee Commission never went beyond the symptoms to the cause.
The situation grew worse as the number of the homeless swelled after the Spanish civil war, Hitler's persecution of the Jews, and the second World War. To provide for over 60 million displaced persons the United Nations founded the International Refugee Organization (IRO). But trouble immediately arose when the Soviet Union reversed its 1917 stand and demanded compulsory repatriation for all Russians. When the West would not accept this attitude the Soviets refused to participate in the program. Yet in spite of the difficulties, the IRO settled many people and provided documents that served as a bridge for others until they could secure national passports. Operating with more central authority than was given the League commissioner, the IRO was able to apply pressure in needed spots and coordinate state activities.
A stumbling block to the program was the attitude of the United States. At first anxious to bolster sagging manpower lists with refugees, Congress' attitude cooled toward the IRO when the post war economy adjusted. Arguing that the care of the remaining refugees could be undertaken by individual countries, Congress squeezed the organization out of existence in 1951 by cutting off financial assistance. Now the UN has back-tracked to the days of the League, with no power or physical resources to provide for the world wide refugee problem.
Repeated dislocations like those in Korea and Israel have shown the error in the Congressional assumption, and have prompted groups like the Red Cross to greater efforts. Yet there are still over 15 million homeless, and the number is growing instead of declining. The program remains decentralized, confusing what is actually a permanent problem for a temporary one.
Also ignored by the present policy is the effect the millions of refugees may have on the free world's camgaign to bolster democracy. Most have been detained for more than seven years in camps, many of them in Western Europe. There is a two-fold danger here: at best these people will have a political apathy toward democratic countries, and at worst they react with violent hostility toward the free world. In effect we are nurturing a modern type of savage deprived of the rights of existing laws.
Some solution must come. The refugee commissioner for the UN has repeatedly asked for more liberal immigration policies and renewed support for an IRO to coordinate actions. But many nations object to any infringement of their sovereignity and will resist any type of centralized authority. Yet if the problem is not attacked anew it will only mean the continued suffering of millions, and a weakening of the West's united front against communism.