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Refugees represent two conflicting dimensions of international politics. On the one hand, there is the question* of realpolitik represented by the tensions which refugees create among and between states and other international actors. On the other, refugees represent a fundamental challenge to sovereignty, by forcing international actors to consider ethical principles and issues of fundamental human rights , which are part of their international obligations, over and above the interests of a tidy system of sovereign states (Skran 1988:278; Skran 1995:70-1). The history of responses to international refugee movements, and the development of legal and organisational norms to shape them, reveals a continuing concern on the part of the international system to codify, order, and make stable a process which is inherently unstable and presumed be transitory (Rogers and Copeland 1993:39). This paper traces the evolution of solutions to the refugee phenomenon, showing how these reflect the tensions between political imperatives and international humanitarian obligations (Skran 1995:71). It explores how the existence of refugees has been interpreted and re-interpreted in line with the prevailing conceptions of the political order, and how these differing interpretations have influenced international reactions to, and actions on behalf of refugees. A review of the evolution of refugee policy demonstrates how the interests and priorities of the most powerful have generally prevailed over moral obligations concerning international responsibility to assist refugees materially and to uphold their human rights in the world of states (Skran 1988:278; 1995:70).

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Refugee Studies Centre

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