HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; 'Neglected' Africa cries out for help

"The refugee problem in Africa will be around for a long time to come unless the West really starts caring," says Martin Getzendanner of UNICEF. Up to 4 million often emaciated, sick and exhausted refugees -- the vast majority in and around the Horn of Africa -- have fled their homelands to neighboring countries, where many now live in dejected misery.

But, for the industrialized world, Africa is the "neglected continent."

Total UN aid in 1980 for officially recognized African refugees and displaced persons only comes to $37 per person. In contrast, every Asian refugee receives the equivalent of $60 in UN aid.

In addition, some American relief sources maintain that while many Asian refugees only need transitory assistance prior to resettlement in other countries, the majority of African refugees often require full-scale relief in camps.

This is not to say that African refugees are being totally ignored. Various voluntary organizations such as CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and the League of Red Cross Societies have launched relief appeals in recent months, notably for East Africa.

But, warns Mr. Getzendanner, "All indications show that forced population movements because of human conflict or natural disaster in this part of the world are on the increase."

Unlike some other parts of the world, the African refugee tends to be persecuted by a combination of both man-made conflicts and natural disasters.The fighting as well as famine in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Chad illustrate this dual theme.

And Africa has a third problem: The majority of the continent's 40-odd countries are themselves impoverished, often unstable, and seldom able to offer much succor without substantial foreign relief. Somalia, Sudan, and Zambia, for example, all have had to request vast amounts of aid to help provide food, shelter, and health care for refugees.

* Man-made conflicts. Many African refugees are forced to flee turmoil and misery caused by liberation wars, ideological conflicts, or tribal rifts. Most also are victims of 19th-century colonial boundary decisions splitting ethnic groups and tribes.

Ethiopia's two wars -- with separatists in Eritrea and with ethnic Somalis in Ogaden -- have produced the greatest toll. But continued civil war in Angola also has forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Zaire, Zambia, and Botswana. In a reverse flow, Angola has absorbed an estimated 35,000 Namibians and over 1,000 black South Africans fleeing repression under the white apartheid regimes there.

Elsewhere, thousands of refugees have been produced by totalitarian regimes in countries such as Equitorial Guinea, Rwanda, Uganda, and Libya.

* Natural disasters. East Africa's drought -- the worst in 15 years -- has combined with the local conflicts to produce the worst refugee situation on the continent.

Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti are swarming with more than 2 million refugees and displaced persons. Another 250,000 people fled Uganda into neighboring Sudan and Zaire after an outbreak of fighting in Uganda's Nile region in early October.

After three years of little or no rain, an estimated 400,000 persons are in danger of starvation in Uganda's Karamoja region.

* Care and resettlement: Unlike Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, resettlement outside the continent has not been the normal solution for African asylum seekers. Most African refugees seek asylum in neighboring countries in the hope that one day they will be able return to their homeland.

Meanwhile, they live in destitute refugee camps, such as those in Somalia; or migrate to urban areas, as have tens of thousands of Ethiopians in the Sudan. Most refugees arrive in their new, usually temporary "homeland" with nothing. They rely on government or international relief for basic survival.

But their presence can also he an asset to local economies. Take Tanzania: The country has been a major have for neighboring Rwandans ever since the early 1960s, when bloody reprisals forced tens of thousands of minority Tutsi tribesmen to flee the Hutudominated government.

But instead of being a burden to the economy, many of the refugees have developed thriving, self-reliant communities, notes David Lambo, chief UNHCR representative in Tanzania. As a result, the country recently granted citizenship to 36,000 Rwandans in what some observers say may be the largest mass naturalization move ever.

Ideally, economic development could prevent today's tragic refugee flows -- often at a fraction of the cost of providing emergency relief. In one part of Ethiopia, for instance, relief agencies are spending more than $10 million in famine relief, whereas pumping $1 million into water construction projects would offset drought across the entire area.

But political upheavals and war force huge expenditures on relief to the homeless, shatter the development process, and hence erode stability still further. Only greatly enlarged international aid and development programs seem likely to break this vicious cycle.

"A cure to the crisis can only be brought about through long-term development projects involving vast structural changes rather than irregular injections of expensive emergency aid," concludes UNICEF's Martin Getzendanner.

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.