United Nations readies for African refugee conference in Geneva

One in two refugees in the world is an African. Five years ago there were only 1 million refugees in Africa. Today there are more than 5 million, and what was once a difficult problem now has risen to the proportions of a major human crisis.

Yet, according to African diplomats, the African refugees have received much less attention than refugees from Southeast Asia, from Cuba, or in earlier days, from Hungary.

In an attempt to make up for this neglect, Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the United Nations, is convening and chairing an international conference on assistance to African refugees on April 9 and 10 in Geneva.

A civil war in Chad has driven thousands of women and children into Cameroon, Nigeria, and Sudan. The refugee population in the Horn of Africa, as a result of ongoing hostilities in the Ogaden and Eritrea, exceeds 1 million people. Civil wars in Uganda, Namibia, Angola, and Zaire have driven tens of thousands of people into neighboring countries.

Somalia alone hosts 1.5 million refugees. Sudan has half a million; Zaire, 400,000; Djibouti, 42,000, or more than 10 percent of its normal population. Burundi has 230,000 refugees; and Cameroon, 260,000.

So far, the funds provided by the international community have been unable to meet either the immediate humanitarian needs, or the long-term needs of the host countries.

Some of the African host countries are among the poorest, least developed, and least able to provide shelter, food, and medical services to large amounts of refugees in the world. The burden of these refugees places catastrophic strains on the economies of backward rural countries such as Sudan, the Central African Republic, Burundi, and Zambia, to name but a few.

"The West has been insensitive to the plight of the African refugees because it does not feel cultural and political ties to them as it does to Asian, Latin American, and, needless to say, European refugees. No African lobbies have forcefully spoken out in Washington, London, or Bonn in favor of their African brothers," one African senior official says with some bitterness.

Others believe that African diplomacy is itself to be blamed to some extent: "Africans have been poor salesmen," according to one Western ambassador.

The coming Geneva conference hopes to raise at least $1 billion to provide immediate assistance as well as long-range relief to the refugees. The resources sought are aimed at helping the refugees to return home voluntarily or to integrate themselves socially and economically in their areas of residence.

But although the conference will call attention to the refugee problem, it is doubtful, according to well-placed sources, that even half the amount needed -- some $500 million -- will be pledged by the approximately 100 countries that have agreed to attend.

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