Saving the forgotten refugees

Worldwide humanitarian conscience needs to be aroused over the plight of starving children in overcrowded refugee camps in Somalia and Uganda. Much to the dismay of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the tendency of the well-off nations of the West in recent years has been to focus their concern and assistance on the struggling Vietnamese "boat people" and other displaced persons in Southeast Asia and to pay relatively little heed to the homeless masses uprooted by war and famine in Africa.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are more than 3.5 million refugees spread across the African continent, in such places as Zaire, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the Sudan in addition to Somalia and Uganda, the countries with the greatest suffering and currently in critical need of help.

Some 1.5 million refugees have fled from the fighting in Ethiopia into Somalia in the past two years. One of the poorest nations in the world, somalia traditionally has ha difficulty providing for its own residents, most of whom are little better off than the refugees whom the Somalis nevertheless are trying to accommodate. Refugees comprise 20 percent of the country's population. The Somalis normally lead a nomadic lifestyle, but left without enough cattle or other means of raising food they are being forced into refugee camps in order to survive.

Likewise the people in northern Uganda -- technically not refugees but the victims of government breakdowns and fighting by local militia groups -- have suffered through two years of crop failures. Relief agencies estimate some 560, 000 women and children in Uganda are starving. Complicating the problem of getting emergency relief into Uganda's famine-stricken Karamoja area have been armed attacks by militia raiders on trucks carrying food and other supplies.

The UN High Commission in July raised the relief target for Somalia alone to reached only $22 million. Relief workers in Somalia see some slight progress being made. For instance, over the past three months the daily mortality rate among children at one camp dropped sharply as food and supplies reached them. But for most refugees, it is still a matter of "survival of the fittest" with much more outside emergency aid needed.

US State Department officials, noting that the US has pledged 114,000 tons of food assistance to the region, say, "All we can do is try to keep the people alive until they can go home." In Somalia, there is little likelihood that the refugees can be integrated into the population, although prospects of this happening in the Sudan are brighter. Sudan, with some 440,000 refugees, has indicated its refugees are welcome to resettle there. Most African nations, in fact, traditionally have viewed refugees as primarily an African problem to be solved by African themselves. Although outside assistance is needed and welcomed, the OAU has made clear that its members have no intention of sending refugees to European or other industrial nations.

The OAU has tentatively planned a worldwide conference to be held probably next spring to call attention to Africa's burgeoning refugee problem. Perhaps much neede long- term solutions will come out of those discussions. But for now , greater emergency assistance remains the most pressing need. The well-fed nations must not let the cries of Africa's hungering children go unanswered.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.