Succor for Africa's refugees

The much maligned international negotiating table is about to fill up again. The place: Geneva's Palais des Nations. The cause: the search for solutions to the problems of Africa's 4 million refugees.

The issues to be tackled at the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II), being held July 9-11, are clear. A quarter of a century after the first of the African colonies achieved their independence the continent is beset by upheavals. Widespread drought, disputed borders, ethnic rivalries, population growth, and grinding poverty have further undermined already fragile social and political structures.

The great hopes raised by what 25 years ago were optimistically called the ''winds of change'' have been reduced to the grim reality of deprivation and human misery. Refugees have been an inevitable result of these upheavals. And while their existence bears witness to the turmoil in their countries of origin, their presence exacerbates the chronic problems of host countries, already struggling to support their own desperately poor citizens.

This is the second time the United Nations Secretary-General, the Organization of African Unity, and my office have called the international community together to focus on Africa's refugees. This time we have been joined by the United Nations Development Programme.

The first conference, in April 1981, drew pledges of more than $500 million (although only part of it was ''new'' money), which was used mainly for immediate relief needs. But it did not solve the more complex, longer-term problems of the refugees, or lighten the massive burdens borne by the countries of asylum which have labored to cope with large influxes of dispossessed people like hosts trying to provide hospitality from an empty table.

This time the thrust will be toward solutions. This is nothing new in itself. UNHCR has long striven to achieve durable solutions. Three main avenues have been pursued.

Our first priority is always to help refugees to return to their own countries, if possible. Over recent years Africa has been the scene of some notable successes. In 1980 more than 250,000 refugees returned to newly independent Zimbabwe, and we are now in the middle of voluntary repatriation of Ethiopians who had sought refuge in Djibouti. More than 10,000 refugees have so far returned.

When repatriation is not feasible, we turn to local settlement, helping refugees to integrate into the countries to which they have fled. Deep-rooted solidarity among Africans has meant that throughout the continent, but notably in Tanzania, Zaire, and Sudan, many thousands of refugees have been taken in and helped to build new lives. But the numbers seeking refuge remain high, and asylum countries are increasingly daunted at the idea of having to bear the refugee burden for the indefinite future.

This said, it is a great tribute that Africa's long tradition of hospitality has meant that the third solution, resettlement in third countries, has not been necessary for more than a handful of African refugees.

UNHCR is no newcomer to the African scene. The office has been involved on the continent since the relief operation launched in 1957 for Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco. This long experience has made it clear that the refugee problem, rather than fading with the sunset of the colonial era, has become more complicated. All too often solutions, when they are possible, are only partial. No longer are the refugees perceived as temporary visitors.

Meanwhile, the costs of integrating them permanently, or of successfully repatriating them, mount as the African economy as a whole deteriorates.

This is the context in which ICARA II takes place. It could result in a major effort to strengthen the areas overloaded with refugees. Funding will be sought for 128 refugee-related development projects in 14 countries. The cost: $362 million. These funds are needed over and above the $166 million UNHCR has budgeted for its own regular programs of refugee relief and durable solutions.

I have no illusions. One hundred twenty-eight fairly modest projects scattered around sub-Saharan Africa are not going to provide a final answer for Africa's refugee crisis. Much more important is the process in which the conference should be just a beginning, signaling a new approach to assistance to refugees in Africa. Solving refugees' problems is going to be a long haul in which, as Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar has emphasized, a determination to deal with the root causes of mass movements of populations must also be a part.

This conference matters. The international community must not miss this vital opportunity to reframe its response to a problem that affects not only Africans but all of us, wherever we may be.

Poul Hartling is United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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