HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Dedication, corruption in the world's bread lines

Like a giant but generous octopus, the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has relief and aid tentacles reaching out to all corners of the globe.

But much of its distant feeler-work is carried out by independent groups of dedicated volunteers. More than 200 such volunteer agencies support the UNHCR worldwide.

And although the UNHCR and the Red Cross are usually the first international groups to rush aid into emergency refugee areas, both have come to rely on these volunteer agencies, or "volags," for specialized assistance.

"We could not operate without the help of the voluntary agencies," maintains Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "They play a major and indispensable role in refugee relief."

The whole network of international and volunteer agencies, however, face a number of difficulties in carrying out their mandate. Among these, relief workers say, are:

* Sometimes inadequate cooperation.

* Instances of corruption and misuse of funds.

* Occasional preference by some church groups for sermonizing or conversion over meeting real human needs.

The UNHCR itself was established in 1951 as the ninth in a series of organizations set up since World War I to protect and assist refugees. It is dependent on government and private funds for support; its 1980 expenditures exceeded $500 million. UNHCR sources say less than 10 percent represents administrative costs, which are borned by the UN budget.

As a rule, the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) intervenes only in armed conflicts. It assists the wounded and sick, prisoners of war, and civilians and has little to do with refugees.

The League of Red Cross Societies, on the other hand, helps national groups ranging from the Pakistani Red Crescent to the Thai Red Cross to provide refugee relief such as medical care, shelter, and clothing.

"A well-organized and active national society in each country is the best guarantee of immediate and effective international action in the event of a disaster," say League officials.

One major plus for the Red Cross is that it is an internationally recognized symbol of neutrality. "We never question the causes of refugee situations," notes a senior American Red Cross official. "We only deal with the consequences."

International agencies, however, can sometimes prove vulnerable to diplomatic and bureaucratic awkwardness as well as corruption.

Recently, a World Food Program employee was arrested by the FBI for pocketing funds worth $134,000. And in Indo-China, several hundred tons of rice disappear every month from UN food depots through the connivance of corrupt government officials, sources contend.

The Thai regime has allegedly imposed exorbitant charges on the international organizations over the past months by artificially inflating relief costs to the tune of several million dollars. Corrupt officials have also been involved in the faulty construction of UNHCR camps.

"We are often at the mercy of the host governments and diplomatic pressures," admits one UNHCR official. "There is little we can do. It is very frustrating."

The "volags" have the advantage of usually being able to ignore high-level politicking and can oversee their operations more closely on the spot. And some of them can operate in areas where the UNHCR has no mandate. Amnesty International, the international London-based human-rights organization, for example, has been helping political prisoners in Argentina and Uruguay apply for optional exile instead of continued detention.

Voluntary agencies are increasingly cooperating among themselves and with the UNHCR to avoid duplication of effort and inappropriate forms of aid. More than 40 "volags," together with the UN agencies and the ICRC, make up the coordinating committee for services to displaced persons in Thailand.

In the United States, the "Campaign for Cambodia" represents the first try at unified fund raising among agencies. It is also the first time that corporations have been solicited to contribute toward a refugee problem.

But there is still much need for greater cooperation. All too often agencies in one country, particularly with regard to resettlement, are still struggling with a difficulty that may have already been solved in another region.

There are now calls for an "idea clearinghouse" as well as an international task force, possibly within the framework of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies in Geneva, to deal more effectively with refugee problems.

If there is one major complaint, it is against certain religious groups that mix too many sermons with service operations. Several agencies, such as the Advancing the Ministry of the Gospels, are accused of manipulating refugees through child-care projects or other operations.

Relief officials say that some refugees have been told they have a better chance of being accepted for resettlement in the United States if they allow themselves to be baptized. "This is a disrespectful and despicable abuse of the refugee's plight," comments a UNHCR official in Thailand.

1979 Contributions to world refugee agencies Country (in millions of ] per capita Sweden $28.6 $3.44 Norway 11.2 2.73 Denmark 13.3 2.61 Switzerland 10.5 1.66 Netherlands 22.7 1.60 West Germany 62.8 1.02 US 165.8 .74 Britain 38.8 .69 Saudi Arabia 5.6 .68 Japan 75.9 .64

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.