Washington — Of the three major refugee crises in the world, the one that has gained the least attention now may have become the most serious. More than 1 million people, half of them crowded into temporary camps, have poured into the African nation of Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world.
The refugees are short of food, water, and medicine. They far outnumber the refugees from either Cambodia or Afghanistan, the world's other two major refugee crisis areas. But so far the world's response to Somalia's needs has been much less generous than it has been to the needs of the Asian refugees.
The United States is attempting to do its share to help, and is, in fact, playing a leading role in relief efforts. But this is a time of budget squeeze in Washington. The US alone cannot meet the need. Somalia, meanwhile, has few friends, and other nations have been slow to respond. The gap between pledges of food aid and the actual need is massive.
Most of Somalia's refugees are women and children in severely weakened condition. The fighting that has helped to drive them out of Ethiopia is not expected to end soon. And, according to a United Nations' report, if the spring rains fail to come -- and some experts say they are not likely to come -- as many as 4 million to 5 million people will face starvation.
"This is a true calamity now and an impending disaster," says Kevin Cahill, a New York physician who has traveled to Somalia many times.
Dr. Cahill, who ran health services in Nicaragua following an earthquake there and once spent six months working in Calcutta, describes himself as neither an innocent nor an alarmist when it comes to such situations.
"But this," he says, "overwhelms anything I've ever seen."
Gordon Goundrey, a United Nations official who led a mission to Somalia last December points out that a 25 to 30 percent population increase there due to the influx of refugees has placed the country's entire economic structure at risk. As the sixth-or seventh-poorest country in the world, Somalia already is unable to provide enough food for its own population, not to speak of refugees.
According to Karl Beck, director of a working group on the Somalia refugee problem at the US State Department, Somalia's current food needs come to nearly 160,000 metric tons. But pledges from foreign nations, with the United States in the lead, come to only 56,000 metric tons.
Thanks to earlier crises in Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Uganda, among other countries, the US Food for Peace program, which might normally provide more grain, is short of food. An administration request for supplemental funds for the Food for Peace program has been held up in Congress, which is determined to cut expenditures.
Mr. Beck said Somalia's nonfood aid needs come to $40.7 million, with only $ 17.7 million provided for in current pledges.That leaves a shortfall of $23 million.
The wealthy Arab nations, which have given aid to Somalia in the past, appear , meanwhile, to have cut their contributions for a variety of reasons, including its close ties with Egypt.
According to UN officials, the European Community is thinking of making a contribution, as is Sweden and the US-based Mennonite Central Committee.
"Maybe Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan, and the Federal Republic of Germany [West Germany] will help," said a UN official. "But it's still difficult to know where it will all come from."
Meanwhile, fighting continues in the Ogaden desert of Ethiopia, whose army has been struggling for several years to suppress ethnic Somali guerrillas. The Somalis claim the Ethiopians are deliberately trying to force out the ethnic Somalis in order to replace them with Ethiopians. Ethiopia accuses Somalia of continuing to support the guerrillas.
US officials suggest that the flight of the ethnic Somalis from the area is due to a combination of causes, including drought and the fighting and possibly an Ethiopian decision to nationalize camels and cattle.
One thing that distinguishes Somalia's refugee situation from others is the willingness, even eagerness, of the country to have foreign volunteers come to its assistance. But, so far, the response has been meager, with only a handful of foreign physicians and nurses working in the refugee camps.