HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Finding a niche for the especially needy
Geneva — One of the most difficult problems in resettling refugees is finding new homes for those who have physical or mental disabilities. The difficult cases -- the handicapped, the sick, the old, the unemployable -- tend to be forgotten or linger with growing hopelessness in makeshift holding camps.
But the largest "problem" group of all is children. More than half of the world's refugees are under the age of 16.
The self-proclaimed humanitarian records of several countries are stained by refusa to accept these less-welcome asylum seekers. Such governments are loath to take on "unproductive" candidates for resettlement, say relief workers.
Two of the outstanding exceptions to this reluctance are Sweden and Switzerland. Since 1954, for instance, Switzerland has resettled several thousand physically and mentally handicapped refugees from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chile, and Vietnam. In addition, by the end of this year Switzerland will have absorbed 3,000 Indo-Chinese refugees, the majority of them disabled.
"We are a small country and cannot welcome many refugees; but we can act usefully by accepting such cases," notes a Swiss government official. (Switzerland has accepted more than 40,000 refugees.)
The Canton of Berne, for example, has donated an old children's hospital to care for disabled refugees. There they receive not only treatment, but also language courses, job training, and other orientation courses.
Chang Hong, a Vietnamese whose traumatic escape from Vietnam prompted severe mental disturbance, has been able to settle in Switzerland with his 8-year-old daughter. He receives regular treatment and entertains the prospect of starting a new life.
Another "problem" case is Thao Davanh who has lost both legs. Today he, too, lives in Switzerland with his family.
But many other countries are less ready to absorb such desperately needy people. And their aversion often extends beyond mental and physical disabilities.
The United States, for example, will not admit bigamous Indo-Chinese. France does accept them. "To have more than one wife is part of the region's culture," says one UNHCR official. "This is a fact of life and should be respected. One simply cannot pretend that it does not exist."
Children require special care. Relief sources assert that they tend to be the ones most likely to suffer from malnutrition, over-crowding, climatic changes, and illness. These relief workers add that the constant stress of separation, travel exhaustion, nd war sometimes lead to mental disturbances.
"A child needs a sense of security," says Jacques Danois, a UNICEF official in Bangkok. "In normal conditions he would find this security among his parents. But under such circumstances it is not possible."
Relief organizations stress the utmost importance of being able to provide children with milk, high protein foods, clothing, clean water, vaccines, and, above all, education.
"Life does not stop in the refugee camps," sas a UNCHR field officer in Mogadishu, Somalia. "We need to run schools and health programs. Children are the future. We must give them a chance."