- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Long-staying refugees in rural camps or urban ghettos are not commodities in a sad state of storage, but vibrant human beings carving out lives for themselves in exile.

That said, where they lack the right to work legally or integrate into the community, they can languish in dependency and lose hope for the future. Refugee “warehousing” is an issue that demands attention — and is getting it.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees has made this issue a centerpiece of its current advocacy campaign. Meanwhile, the State Department, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other partner agencies are taking dramatic steps to address the warehousing problem.

The key step is facilitating voluntary repatriation. Tens of thousands of long-staying refugees have returned to Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia from neighboring countries. More than 80,000 Iraqis have gone home since the fall of Saddam. But the biggest success story is Afghanistan, where more than 3 million have returned from long stays in Pakistan and Iran.

This continuing repatriation represents one of the largest refugee solutions in modern times, and the number of refugees caught in these dead-end situations has decreased remarkably.

While “de-warehousing” refugees — through repatriation, local integration, or resettlement — is an important first step, it is not enough. Sustaining repatriation requires commitment from the international donor community over the long haul. Returnees need long-term transitional help and employment opportunities to restore their dignity and self-reliance.

To that end, the U.S. started an employment program called the Afghan Conservation Corps (ACC). Already, 750,000 seedlings have been planted on the dusty hillsides around Kabul by thousands of returning refugees, internally displaced persons, demilitarized militias, and Afghan women.

Ultimately, hundreds of thousands will join them in working on similar projects. The ACC is a model for how to make de-warehousing irreversible.

There are still critics who charge we are not doing enough to bring to the United States needy refugees who can’t be repatriated. I say, “Watch what we are doing.” Watch, for example, the rapid response to an unexpected opening in Thailand to interview 15,000 Lao Hmong stranded for more than a decade in Wat Tham Krabok. By year’s end, most will be resettled in the U.S. Watch also our admitting Meshketian Turks from Russia who had been rootless for decades.

Resettlement is costly and labor-intensive, but we have spared no expense or effort to resettle refugees in the United States, when that is the most appropriate solution.

We know there remain vulnerable people — especially women and children — who have waited for years or even decades for rescue. This administration is committed to overcoming the obstacles in the way of such a rescue.

We urge other countries to be more generous in giving aid, admitting refugees and facilitating local integration where appropriate. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said during World Refugee Day commemorations in June: “We join other nations in easing the plight of all those who will close their eyes tonight in a strange land to dream of the home they were forced to flee. It’s up to all of us to defend the non-negotiable demands of human dignity. It’s up to all of us to help the world’s refugees feel at home again.”

It takes a home, not a warehouse, to make these dreams come true.

Arthur E. Dewey is assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

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