UN Focuses on Urgent Needs of Bosnia's Displaced

WITH winter at the door in former Yugoslavia, refugee organizations are becoming increasingly concerned about the plight of people displaced by the war.

On Dec. 4, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will meet with governments and organizations to review refugee assistance, including the feasibility of "safe-zones" in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though the UN's September appeal for $282 million to provide assistance through the winter has been answered, it looks like "tens of millions of dollars" more will be needed, says UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond in Geneva.

About 1.7 million people have been displaced within Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the commissioner worries that "this winter we are going to get huge movements of people because we can't get [aid] through to them," says Mr. Redmond.

Already thousands have swarmed to the Bosnian border but they have no place to go because no countries will accept them.

The commissioner has not even been able to find places for 6,600 former detainees from prison camps.

"The world condemned these camps and demanded that they close," yet it won't accept their prisoners, Redmond says. "It's pathetic. The world has basically closed its doors."

The UNHCR has sought refuge for the detainees in more than 20 countries, and the response has been piecemeal: 300 to France, 72 to Finland, 60 to Belgium, 300 to the United States, and so on.

Britain bowed to German pressure at a meeting of European Community foreign ministers Nov. 30 when it agreed to take in 1,000 detainees plus their dependents. Previously, London had agreed to take only 150. The UNHCR is still short 1,441 places.

"We're not sharing responsibility," says a spokeswoman for the Refugee Council in London, just days before the British increased their share.

As the Refugee Council spokeswoman sees it, the British government has been mistakenly lumping Bosnians in with the broader issue of economic refugees, who are flooding into western Europe and putting domestic pressure on governments to restrict the flow.

"There's no indication that the public thinks these are economic migrants," she says, adding that there's been "enormous private interest" in the fate of Bosnian and Croatian refugees.

In Germany, in contrast to their treatment of asylum seekers, both private and public sectors have responded with tremendous support for the refugees. Germany had close ties with the former Yugoslavia, and has taken in 235,000 refugees, more than any other country, and has contributed 300 million deutsche marks ($188 million) in humanitarian aid.

The Germans have consistently pressured their European Community neighbors to match their generosity, but to no avail.

A source at the European Community says that its member countries, in refusing large numbers of refugees, are only following UNHCR policy that refugees stay as close to their country of origin as possible.

To accept streams of refugees "would, to a certain extent, be helping the Serbs fulfill their policy of ethnic cleansing," the source says.

However, UNHCR's Redmond warns that the international community is "hiding behind" the philosophy of keeping the refugees close to home. Although this is helpful because of language and the ease of eventually returning refugees to their homes, "in this situation, it may not be possible" to always hold to this policy, he says. "The refugees are being sandwiched into smaller and smaller places all the time."

Croatia, with just 4.7 million people, is trying to care for 627,000 Bosnian refugees, the world's fourth-largest refugee population. Croatia is receiving considerable international assistance to build shelters for the refugees, and the government claims it needs $50 million a month for their upkeep. But Croatia refuses to take any more Bosnian refugees unless they have a guaranteed place in another country.

Even though many of the refugees in Croatia still live in tents, "they are the lucky ones, though I'm sure they don't think so," says Redmond. Those in Bosnia face extinction: by starvation, by freezing, by war. A tremendous effort needs to be made to provide these people with heat, water, food, and shelter and to keep the transport links open for supplies, Redmond says.

The UNHCR is doing what it can to see that this happens. The plans, people, trucks, and protection are in place to carry out a massive relief program, says Redmond, "but we're being hindered by fighting and the thugs at the roadblocks."

The affected people in Bosnia-Herzegovina require at least 9,100 metric tons of relief assistance a week, according to UN officials. In the week of Nov. 16, UNHCR managed to get 5,100 metric tons through. "And that was a pretty good week," Redmond says.

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