From 1991 until 2000, Sadako Ogata's job at the United Nations was to help displaced war victims find a safe haven away from home. The rapidly changing global politics of the time made it a busy decade for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"It was a very interesting transition period from a very structured Cold War politics to something loose and not knowing which way to go," she says. "On the other hand, there were many countries where there were a lot of internal tensions that burst open. There were a lot of separatist movements, and so on, that produced a lot of refugees."
In her book The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s, Ms. Ogata recounts her experience dealing with four major refugee crises: in Northern Iraq, the Balkans, Rwanda and Afghanistan. The Kurdish refugee crisis, she recalls, began after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein suppressed a Kurdish uprising in Northern Iraq. As a result, Kurdish refugees fled east to Iran and north to Turkey.
"Almost a million went to Iran and Iran received them," she said. "Then, there were some 450,000 who moved towards Turkey, and didn't quite make it across the border because Turkey had their own Kurdish minority problems. I think there was a real political problem. And a lot of these refugees, Kurds, were stuck on the mountainside."
After negotiations with the governments involved, those refugees were able to return safely to Northern Iraq.
Security - or the lack of it - is a serious challenge for relief operations. During the Rwanda crisis, Ms. Ogata says, more than one million people fled to eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Among them were armed combatants who threatened to bring the carnage across the border, endangering both the true refugees and the humanitarian workers who were there to help them.
"In principal, it's the host country that looks after security because the UNHCR is a civilian agency," she said. "But the security officers of Zaire were not that many, nor that able. So the host government could not take care of the security. So I asked the [U.N.] Secretary General if he could ask member states to provide police or military taking over police work. This was tried, but we didn't succeed. I had to devise our own security arrangements. This was a temporary arrangement that succeeded at some point but didn't really bring a lasting solution."
According to Ms. Ogata, finding such a "lasting solution" requires intervention on various levels, either to settle the security issues or bring about a political resolution to the cause of the violence. Military intervention, she says, should be the last resort -- as it was in the Balkans.
"For a long time there were efforts by civilian humanitarian workers to make sure that [the refugees] were protected," she says. "When this wasn't done, there were the U.N. peacekeeping forces that tried to help the civilian humanitarian workers. Finally, the NATO forces, in response to requests from the peacekeeping forces did resort to air strikes."
One of those civilian humanitarian workers was Eduardo Arboleda. As the chief of UNHCR operations in eastern Croatia, he stayed during the NATO bombing.
"Vukovar was probably the second place that was bombed," he says. "The city was virtually destroyed. So you were working in a place where half of the buildings were no longer there, where there was so much hostility, where the Serbs and the Croats didn't get along and our mission was to try to get them to live side by side. In Belgrade, I had the unfortunate experience of being there during through the bombing, and being in charge of the office, keeping the office open, because we had over half a million refugees to take care of."
Relief workers like Mr. Arboleda are prepared to assume different duties, depending on the situation. Sadako Ogata points to Afghanistan, where she says the relief workers' role evolved from helping refugees in Iran and Pakistan return home safely, to helping the government in Kabul rebuild the devastated country.
"By now there are more than four million who went back…but four million refugees going back means that you have to help set up life from scratch," Ms. Ogata says. "There were two movements -- back home for the refugees and back to school for the children. That was very hard, especially for girls who had not been in school for a long time."
Sadako Ogata says she learned during her "turbulent decade" as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that humanitarian action is inherently inadequate. While solving historical, ethnic and religious conflicts can prevent some refugee crises, the ultimate answer to the world's refugee problem involves finding real political solutions when conflicts arise. She
says it is never easy for people to become refugees, and there was nothing more