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."
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.
There still are too many cases around the world where refugees are not accepted but sent back to an uncertain fate. African governments have not only generally met their responsibilities to asylum seekers, but they have recognized that the solution to the problem of African refugees is in Africa. They have not asked that their refugees be settled on another continent. The problem is that their hospitality is being offered from an empty table. Help from outside is crucial.
The conference in Geneva will look beyond immediate emergency needs toward durable solutions. In the context of the third world, outside assistance is sorely needed to enable refugees to become productive citizens integrated into society. In Africa's rural setting the inputs required are relatively modest: seeds, agricultural tools, sufficient food to see farmers through a first harvest, and infrastructure support such as roads, water supply, hospitals, schools. ICARA will seek to obtain international assistance for projects aimed at strengthening the ability of asylum countries to carry the extra burden placed on their services and facilities.
There is an understandable tendency to despair today over the course of international affairs, especially with increased conflicts and economic difficulties, yet the sense of international solidarity as expressed through humanitarian aid has grown impressively. Aid to Kampuchea, for example, helped a people to survive, and the financial and diplomatic support given to my organization, UNHCR, has risen manyfold over the years. Not only does this humanitarian aid save hundreds of thousands of human lives, but by dampening a source of potential conflict it is a powerful force for peace and stability. My experience has been that efforts to help refugees have not been in vain. The refugees of yesterday are not the refugees of today.
A few days after becoming high commissioner in January 1978, I made my first trip to see and talk with refugees. I chose southern Africa, where the major refugee problem at that time resulted from the bitter conflict in what was then called Rhodesia. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans had fled their war-torn country to crowd into the refugee camps in neighboring states. We saw them in Mozambique where the rural settlements still showed the vestiges of air and ground attacks, we saw them in desolate barracks in Botswana, and we saw many children, especially at the Victory Camp outside of Lusaka, where hundreds of girls welcomed us with enthusiastic singing.
A year ago when I was in Zimbabwe for independence celebrations, a government minister shook my hand and reminded me that the last time we had met was in a refugee camp. His compatriots have now returned and, whether minister or farmer , have gotten down to the job of building their country, a hard job but infinitely more rewarding than waiting in a refugee camp in a foreign land.
Africa's five million refugees must be given the means first to survive, and then to rebuild their lives in dignity.