One in every two refugees is African
A few weeks ago I was in the Sudan, an African country which in recent years has had to confront massive refugee influxes from a number of its neighbors. When I was there, Ugandans were crossing the White Nile into southern Sudan in canoes. They were in desperate condition, especially the emaciated children. A government official told me, "You see we have our boat people too."Skip to next paragraph
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The tragedy of the boat people in Southeast Asia dramatized a major problem of our time: the mass exodus of refugees, victims of events beyond their control , fleeing their homes to seek asylum in another country. The Sudanese official was trying to tell me that his country and his continent have a serious refugee problem as well, about which the world should know. The world has taken notice. On April 9 and 10 the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) will be held in Geneva. The goal is not only to focus public attention on the problem of African refugees but also to mobilize assistance for a continent which suffers the world's largest refugee problem.
With 12 percent of the world's population, Africa has almost 50 percent of the world's refugees, which means that one in every two refugees in the world today is an African.
The burden of Africa's five million refugees is not equally spread over this vast continent. The Sudan alone has accepted over the last years from neighboring countries as many refugees as those who have landed on the shores of Southeast Asia. In Somalia, which had a population of four million, the authorities report more than 1.5 million refugees in camps in the country.
For the United States it would be as though in a few months the entire populations of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland showed up on the East Coast bringing with them only the clothes on their backs and half of them sick. The dislocation, even with America's great resources, would be enormous, priorities would have to be reodered, and resources allocated for economic growth and social welfare would have to be directed to the refugees to assure their survival.
What makes the refugee problem in Africa particularly difficult is the fact that 80 percent of the refugees are in the least developed countries of the world. Caught in the vicious circle of poverty, these nations are struggling to give their own people a decent standard of living. Development prospects have been dimmed by such outside factors as mounting energy costs, food deficits, severe drought, debt repayment burdens, and world recession. It is not difficult to imagine the impact on such fragile economies of tens of thousands of hungry and sick refugees.
Tribute must be paid to those countries that have acted so generously, a generosity rooted in traditional African hospitality. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, my first concern is that the refugee who is seeking asylum because of a well-founded fear of persecution is not turned back at the border. Unless this basic right is respected by the states of the world, any assistance to refugees is meaningless.