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UN Official Seeks Help for 17 Million Exiles

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

By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 1992


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.

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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

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.