UN Official Seeks Help for 17 Million Exiles

New refugee chief deplores 'cooling of compassion' among Western donor nations over needs of exiles

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the past year, both Japan and Sadako Ogata have tried separately to define a new role for themselves in the world. So far, Mrs. Ogata is ahead.

When the former Japanese professor and envoy took over as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) a year ago in the middle of the Gulf crisis, Japan was just starting a long debate over how to contribute people, not just wealth, to shaping the post-cold-war world.

"There's a feeling that Japan should do something in terms of human contributions," the outspoken Ogata says in an interview in Tokyo. "But exactly how should it be done? I don't think there's a consensus yet." Emergency exodus

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In the meantime, the new UN High Commissioner had to deal with an emergency exodus of 1.5 million Iraqis and Kurds, which forced a doubling of the UNHCR budget, as well as other fast-changing refugee situations. She also is trying to prevent a cooling of compassion for refugees among Western nations.

"There's never been a year like 1991 for UNHCR - just one crisis after another," Ogata says. She broke all records for previous commissioners by visiting 27 countries in one year, and her first year at that.

Ogata is trying to widen the activities of her agency, which was founded at the dawn of the cold war, beyond just protecting asylum-seekers to that of preventing a crisis from producing refugees and to helping refugees resettle back home. Most of the 17 million exiles worldwide are victims of cold-war conflicts; many may be repatriated soon, raising a host of new problems.

Ogata points to about 20 local conflicts around the world under negotiation, and the need for them to be resolved "in a rather orderly way, otherwise we just cannot manage."

This costly "cleanup" of cold-war refugees should be near the top of a new global agenda, alongside disarmament and environment, she says. For hundreds of thousands of refugees, repatriation has already started or will soon start in Cambodia, South Africa, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, and Mozambique. The largest unresolved refugee problem is the 5 million Afghans forced into Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country.

"The end of the cold war frees us in terms of options," Ogata says. "During the cold war, the ideological division clearly divided who was the wrong country, and who was not the wrong one. Now I think any regime can be repressive, regardless of whatever ideology. We're trying to work things out in a way that repression does not force people out."

She describes her job as a mirror of the world. The morning news often sets UNHCR's agenda for the day. An invasion here or a military coup there automatically revs up the agency to protect the inevitable asylum-seekers. But Ogata wants her Geneva-based agency to be less reactive and more preventative, setting up early-warning measures.

"UNHCR was very slow in recognizing the need for prevention," she says, pointing out the agency's lack of expertise in East European minorities.

The potential flow of migrants from the former East-bloc nations is "a very big, potentially explosive situation," she says, as the racist polemics increase in Europe.

"There's a sense of crisis in Western Europe about migration. The political mood is a kind of fear. They perceive migratory movement on a scale that is unprecedented. There is a lot of anti-foreigner, anti-asylum-seeker feeling."

UNHCR is providing information to Western Europe about the political and economic situations in neighboring countries, especially Yugoslavia, to help them determine whether a migrant should qualify as a refugee or not. Still, Ogata says Western Europe has not yet balanced its concern for refugees with its domestic economic woes.

"Separating economic migrants from political refugees is not easy. It's possible that not all true refugees will be regarded as refugees," she warns. She defines a refugee as "someone forced to flee to save his life and liberty," not someone seeking "economic possibilities."

UNHCR has also set up an office in Moscow as a way to help Russia write new laws about displaced people and possibly prevent mass migration to the West.

Last year, the high commissioner had to cope with the problem of whether migrants from Vietnam and Haiti were being returned home against their will by two of the agency's main supporters, Britain and the United States respectively.

She criticized the US for not considering that many recent Haitian boat people may be seeking political asylum to escape a new military regime. "Are they going to be examined and treated as if they might be refugees or not?"

On Feb. 3 she condemned the US for resuming the forced repatriation of Haitians.

In British-controlled Hong Kong, some 57,000 Vietnamese boat people face possible repatriation by force, an action Ogata opposes.

"I will never take a refugee by the hand and put them on a plane," she says flatly.

Still, those Vietnamese who have so far returned voluntarily have received some UNHCR support and are being monitored for possible retribution by local officials. Some have fled again to Hong Kong just to be sent home once more as a way to receive more money.

"I do not object to the forced return of these 'double-backers she says. In general, she continues, UNHCR faces a serious problem in how to return economic migrants to their homes and also whether to go along with a suggestion for the international community to force humanitarian aid on a country, such as happened in Iraq last year in aid for Kurdish refugees.

In such a case, she says, UNHCR needs at least some tacit approval from a country before it can help the "internally displaced." But in general, she believes that national sovereignty should not be a shield to deprive such displaced people from international aid. She wants the UN to come up with a framework to resolve the dilemma.

"The coming year will be very critical in terms of the possibility of reducing the world's refugee problems," says Ogata. "Maybe, if I'm lucky, I might be able to reduce the number of refugees by a couple [of] million." Private donations

Ogata has used close ties to leaders in Tokyo and her appearances on Japanese television to gain more in private and official money for UNHCR from Japan. Private donations, mainly from big business and Buddhist sects, nearly doubled to $18 million.

"There is overwhelming support," she says. "The government has tried very hard to support me financially and also in policy."

Still, she feels free to openly criticize the Japanese government, as she did last August when it hastily deported a Chinese woman despite her claims of having taken part in the 1989 prodemocracy protests in Beijing.

"Every country has its problems [with refugees,]" she says, in defending Japan, but notes that Japan should provide more volunteers to international bodies by loosening up its rigid employment practices.

"Japan is about the only country that is talking about internationalization while its Western partners are talking about looking inward. I find that rather amusing." Quest for UN seat

Japan's quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, says Ogata, "is long overdue." Its most active diplomacy within the UN right now is to find a major role in the Cambodia settlement, perhaps by helping refugees return, by de-mining the country, or by sending troops to serve as UN peacekeepers. In early January, Japan was able to have one of its highest-ranking UN workers, undersecretary Yasushi Akashi, put in charge of the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia.

Ogata, now the most prominent Japanese in the UN, sees herself as helping the Japanese change from being passive pacifists to active ones.

"We have tried to be a country that didn't want to cause any harm to others. But it has to be something that contributes more directly. My message right now is that, financially, Japan is a great support. I don't agree with people who try to minimize the importance of financial support. It is everything.

"At the same time, you want a little more visibility, otherwise you will be criticized for 'checkbook diplomacy,' whatever that is. People will be very disappointed when giving their financial contributions and being criticized. There has to be a little more balance."

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