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In the decades ahead, the mass, uncontrolled movement of refugees across the globe will be one of the principal threats to international security. Today, an explosion of "poverty refugees" fleeing the destitution of their homelands far exceeds the number of "traditional refugees" fleeing persecution and war.

Unlike the few thousand refugees who had to be resettled after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, for example, today scores of millions are trying to survive by negotiating the chasm between the rich and poor nations.After years of demanding open borders and the free movement of people in the context of the Cold War, the relatively well-to-do West must not now build a new Berlin Wall of visa restrictions to keep out poor migrants. Unless we seek to alleviate the source of their misery through development assistance, we surely risk inviting a new kind of global violence. That violence will be born of despair and could well be carried out with the chemical or nuclear weapons so easily accessible in today's world.

In short, the dimensions of the world refugee problem today mean that we must redefine the issue in terms of security, not charity alone.

Under the mandate of the United Nations Convention of 1951, which covers people fleeing persecution for political, religious or ethnic reasons, as well as later U.N. resolutions covering those escaping war or war-like situations, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is responsible for some 15 million officially designated refugees.

In addition, we deal with another 14 million "displaced" persons who are, in effect, refugees within their own country because of civil strife. Although it is not possible to accurately establish a number, it is certain that the number of "poverty refugees" is considerably greater than these 29 million.

Most of these new refugees are from Africa and Asia, such as the many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" who have fled the backwaters of underdevelopment for the capitalist outposts of Hong Kong and elsewhere. But they also include the millions of undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants seeking work in cities like Los Angeles. And, they will soon count among their ranks the estimated 6 million impoverished people likely to seek a new life in Western Europe when Soviet borders are opened.

Two developments have fueled this historically unprecedented flow of refugees. As never before, the information and communications revolution has enabled the previously isolated poor to see how well people elsewhere are living. And the revolution in transportation has provided the means for the mass movement of people to new locations.

Undoubtedly, as the disparities between wealth and poverty grow on a world scale at the same time as political regimes like those in Eastern Europe liberalize, the flow of new refugees will swell even further.

I am convinced, as we move toward the next century, the only viable course is to maintain the formal distinction between traditional political refugees and the new economic refugees. But just as persecution and oppression have to be met by the opportunity for asylum, the response to migration for economic reasons must be met by development aid to the poverty-stricken nations.

Unfortunately, because the flood of poverty-refugees is now so great, one of our major problems is determining just who has fled for reasons of persecution as opposed to poverty, and thus deserves traditional asylum. In many instances, we don't even have the opportunity to conduct interviews with those who are fleeing; boatloads of Vietnamese are callously pushed back out to sea in many Southeast Asian countries. In such circumstances, no one is helped.

For this reason, the commission is prepared to assist the return of refugees voluntarily to their countries of origin. The recent repatriation of more than 43,000 Namibians, 30,000 Salvadorans and Nicaraguans and some 100,000 refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan shows that voluntary return is possible.

Our current program to voluntarily return Vietnamese "boat people" to Vietnam may serve as a model for the future. The effort is proving effective both in stemming the outflow of poverty refugees and inspiring others to return.

By redefining the new problem of poverty refugees in the context of security, and vigorously addressing the root cause of the mass movement of peoples across the globe, we have a real chance to avoid the violent conflagration that otherwise awaits us.

1990, New Perspectives Quarterly

Distributed by L.A. Times Syndicate