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Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - The Editor's Desk: 1999 - and the new millennium

Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - The Editor's Desk: 1999 - and the new millennium
Refugees (117, 1999)

1 December 1999
1999 was a year of paradox. A gloomy assessment for the new millennium.

1999 was the year of grand contradictions.

Kosovo attracted more international attention, via the media, governments and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), than any other humanitarian operation in history. Yet it was a distorted type of exposure, many aid officials worry, which, by highlighting the refugee crisis, helped mask serious political and military failures - the type of humanitarian figleaf which has been used throughout the 1990s, first in Bosnia and then in Africa's Great Lakes region in the mid 1990s.

Never have the operations of aid agencies been put under such an intense microscope and criticism levelled so forcefully. UNHCR was a prime target and has acknowledged major deficiencies in some areas. But in such a highly charged environment where spin doctors were paramount, it was often overlooked that Kosovo was a humanitarian success of major proportions. Nearly 850,000 people were cared for as refugees and then returned home within a matter of months. There was much physical discomfort but virtually no refugee related disease or deaths which normally accompany major expulsions.

Kosovo and then East Timor dominated the headlines throughout the year, but the majority of other humanitarian crises - in Angola, Sudan or Afghanistan and dozens of other places - were often overlooked and international funding sometimes curtailed.

The new millennium opens on a distinctly mixed note. Encouragingly, European nations agreed to establish a comprehensive continent-wide asylum system which was welcomed by refugee groups. African nations showed an increasing awareness that the continent must do more to solve its own refugee crises. And East Timorese were returning home to help rebuild the world's newest nation.

But the good news ends quickly. Nearly 22 million people worldwide remain 'of concern' to UNHCR and an equal number of people who do not fall under the agency's mandate are internally displaced within their own countries.

U.N. member states disagreed sharply in New York about just how forcefully the international community could or should intervene to help this group of people, a debate which will be one of the liveliest in the coming millennium (see main story).

Funding for any but the 'sexiest' humanitarian operations is becoming increasingly difficult. Kosovo confirmed a decade-long trend by donors to directly underwrite highly visible country-to-country projects, so-called bilateral programmes, at the expense of traditional multilateral operations.

Civil wars, often more bloody, more complex and more protracted than cross-border conflicts, appear to be increasing, putting not only fleeing civilians but also humanitarian workers themselves in the firing line. As 1999 ended there was a renewed spate of killings of aid officials.

After a decade when field personnel increasingly, and willingly, put themselves more and more at risk to help refugees, the new millennium may well see a reversal of that trend as well as the ways in which humanitarian agencies operate and fund themselves.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)