NAIROBI, KENYA — Every weekday, dozens of people gather in a disorderly lineup outside the gray concrete building that houses the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office here. Their hands clutch appointment slips, tattered identity documents, and appeal letters, while their hearts carry their stories of exile.
"I can't go back to my country. I would be killed," says Abdul Hakim, a Somali man wearing a prayer cap. "I am here because I want to go to a refugee camp. I am homeless, and there is no way of making any income here."
Such stories are repeated daily at UNHCR offices like this across Africa, the continent that presents the refugee agency with some of its greatest challenges as it marks its 50th anniversary. Governments are becoming less welcoming to refugees, insecurity in camps is growing, and funding is insufficient.
Africa harbors a disproportionate number of the world's refugees: 525,000 Burundians, 500,000 Somalis, 490,000 Sierra Leoneans, 475,000 Sudanese, 350,000 Angolans, 345,000 Eritreans, 290,000 Liberians, and 250,000 Congolese.
Yet African refugees bear the brunt of the UNHCR budget crunch. In 1999, funding provided $120 per refugee in the former Yugoslavia, compared with $35 for each in West Africa. "Even if you account for the difference in climate and the difference in the cost of living, the disparity is still high," says UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond.
Part of the problem is getting the world to pay attention to Africa. Only a week ago, an estimated 50,000 Congolese fled into Zambia and it barely registered in the global media. Donors grow weary of providing funding for long-lasting refugee problems, which describes many of the African crises.
Safety and security is the number-one challenge for UNHCR in Africa, according to Anthony Kozlowski, president of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, which saw two if its workers killed recently in Guinea. In September, four UNHCR workers were killed - three in West Timor, one in Guinea.
"In Guinea, all of the humanitarian agencies have evacuated because of incursions from Liberia and Sierra Leone," says Mr. Kozlowski. "UNHCR has to work much more closely with the UN Security Council in order to institute improved security measures for its personnel."
Because of insecurity, UNHCR can't get to thousands of refugees in places like Congo-Brazzaville and northern Angola. In the past few weeks alone, UNHCR has had to pull staff from refugee camps in Sudan and Guinea. Says Mr. Redmond: "The reason security has become so bad is because we are increasingly working ... in places where even peacekeepers won't go."
Ensuring the safety of the refugees is also proving more difficult. Large flows of people across borders have made it tough for officials to sort out refugees from combatants. A recent report by the Fund for Peace, a US human rights group, called Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya the "nerve center for arms trafficking" between Somalia and the rest of East Africa. Burundian women refugees were the victims of mass rapes last year in western Tanzania.
Although UNHCR has been criticized for such security problems, some observers say limited resources are to blame. "Too often, UNHCR has been forced to fill a humanitarian aid vacuum by taking on assignments that nations should be assuming, but instead are avoiding," says Reynold Levy, the International Rescue Committee president.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society