Monday, December 04, 2006

Refugees

John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, was on C-Span last night talking about Iraq. Inevitably, given that he had served in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he was asked about some of the parallels that pundits posit between the two wars. Among other points, Negroponte said that Iraq’s major urban areas are much less secure that were South Vietnam’s and the real enemy in Iraq is much more difficult to clearly identify than in Vietnam – the Soviet Union and its support of North Vietnam.

I’m not sure that this was the same Vietnam I saw or is today’s Iraq. Tet 1968 demonstrated just how insecure the cities of Vietnam were. Provincial capitals were “secure” to the maximum range of the artillery available to the province leader (a military officer) and the size of the ground forces under his command. When it came to district capitals, security was less assured and depended in part on the activities the Viet Cong were up to – e.g., was a district used for rest and recuperation or as a conduit for men and materiel to get closer to Saigon.

Negroponte’s remarks about security in the urban areas recalled to mind two recent articles about the condition and the numbers of people who are refugees from wars in which the U.S. was or is a participant. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and in the immediate aftermath of that event in 1975, approximately 125,000 South Vietnamese escaped and were resettled eventually in the U.S. Subsequent escapees, mainly in the late 1970s, added another 530,000 who settled in the U.S. All told, an estimated two million South Vietnamese became refugees, some for years.

A recent UN report characterizes the exodus of people from Iraq and Afghanistan as a “hemorrhaging.” Iraq is said to have lost more than 10 percent of its pre-2003 invasion population of 26 million and a much higher percentage of its educated professional class. An estimated 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries, with nearly half – 700,000 – settling in Jordan, a country of just 4 million, half of whom are Palestinians. Another1.5 million Iraqis are refugees in their own country, that is, internally displaced persons (IDPs). The UN report also calculates that 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqis try to flee across international borders every day, but many of Iraq’s neighbors are turning back the more indigent who seek asylum.

While the Iraqi diaspora now rivals the estimated three million Palestinian refugees, it is Afghanistan that has generated the largest number of new refugees on an annual basis in recent years.

Armed conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Lebanon, Sudan, Chechnya, and other areas prone to violence continue to produce their own refugee and IDP victims. In 2005 alone, 3 million people were displaced.

It is a dismal commentary on the state of the world to learn that current estimates place the number of refugees and asylum seekers around the globe at 12 million and IDPs at another 21 million. And were that not bad enough, consider this: worldwide, at least 6.2 million – more than half – of the 12 million refugees have been living in camps for more than five years – and have little or no chance of getting out.

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