Geneva — There are a variety of ways in which concerned individuals can actively tackle both the repression that causes refugees as well the problems that subsequently beset them.
A galvanized public opinion can often protect refugees by pressuring repressive governments to change their ways. Relief officials maintain that the indignant public outcry last year against Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries for turning back the "boat people" helped bring the matter to a halt.
"Governments, even the most totalitarian, are extremely sensitive to bad publicity," says a lawyer with Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization. "Enough persistent pressure, be it letter-writing, demonstrations, hunger strikes, or persuading one's government to take action, can often bring about positive results."
Thereafter, public awareness and concern are among the most important components in successful refugee assistance. Not only must the volunteer agencies rely on society's conscience for much-needed donations to run their operations, but the refugees themselves must feel they have not been abandoned.
"Helping refugees is not just a matter of giving money," notes an Oxfam field officer in Thailand. "It is also a matter of understanding the situation. Who are the refugees? Why have they been forced to flee? And, above all, what is happening to them now?"
Relief officials suggest the following ways for readers to help:
* Keep yourself and others informed about refugee situations around the world. A refugee crisis may no longer make the headlines, but that does not mean it is over.
* Join a local refugee assistance group. If your community doesn't have one, start one. Relief agencies will be glad to offer advice.
* Help sponsor a refugee for resettlement in your community. Newly arrived refugees need homes, jobs, clothes, language instruction, transportation, friends, and other forms of assistance. Any of these you can provide will help.
* Invite a refugee leader to talk your group or club about his country and people. Many refugees have gone through traumatic experiences in being uprooted from their homeland and have difficulties adjusting to a new culture and climate. Meetings will help them understand your culture and vice versa.
* Urge local radio and television stations to hold refugee forums or show films on refugee problems. Ask relief workers, teachers, doctors, or journalists who have visited these countries to talk about their experiences in schools, colleges, group assemblies, or chambers of commerce.
* Get young people interested in refugee problems. Organize "refugee days" to help pupils realize what it means to be a refugee.
* Hold fund-raising events such as rummage sales, car washes, walking marathons, art exhibitions, and plays. In some churches, too, funds can be raised through collections. Be sure people realize why they are contributing. Sustained support is needed for the relief agencies to continue providing emergency, as well as resettlement, assistance to refugees abroad and at home.
* Help out volunteer agencies abroad. In Thailand hundreds of volunteers, many of them travelers and students, made impromptu appearances at refugee camps along the Cambodian border in late 1979 to help with the influx of Khmer refugees. A large number were temporarily taken on by the agencies.
In general, however, the agencies usually have their own pools of relief specialists ranging from water engineers to pilots. "We tend to be besieged with offers of help wherever there is a disaster," says a senior CARE official. "Some of them are eccentric, others effective. But emergency relief is expensive. We need above all financial support." The agencies also accept food, medication, clothes, or trucks.