Reaching out to Africa's homeless millions

Voices from Africa call to be heard. Today an international conference opens in Geneva to try to raise emergency aid for the millions of refugees on the African continent. The Western nations responded with conscience and charity when hundreds of thousands of "boat people" fled their ravaged homelands in Indochina. Now the urgent need is to meet another humanitarian challenge caused by widespread drought, war, and political upheavals.

Relatively little public attention has been paid to Africa's homeless. Yet the shocking fact is that one in every two refugees today is African. Only a decade ago there were about one million refugees in Africa. Today there are a staggering five million. The burden this has placed on the developing African nations, already struggling to lift themselves out of poverty, can only be imagined. In Somalia alone there are 1.5 million refugees; the whole population of the country is only four million. Sudan has taken in as many refugees as those that landed on the shores of Southeast Asia.

The advanced nations of the West can afford to be generous. It should not be lost on them that African governments are not asking that the refugees be resettled on other continents. As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Poul Hartling wrote for the Monitor this week, the African states have demonstrated the traditional African hospitality in taking in and helping the hungry and enfeebled. But "the problem is that their hospitality is being offered from an empty table," said Mr. Hartling. "Help from the outside is crucial."

Not surprisingly, there is a discrepancy between what the some 40 African states would like by way of aid -- about $1 billion --and what the Western governments are reported willing to give. The Africans estimate that their refugees have received far less assistance from UN agencies and voluntary organizations than have the Asian refugees. This imbalance no doubt is due to lack of the international awareness which is generated by a spotlighted crisis like the exodus of the boat people in Asia. But it is hoped the conference in Geneva will rectify this imbalance.

The United States role is especially vital, because Africans have felt Washington has long ignored the continent and the refugee plight. There are encouraging indications, however, that President Reagan is taking US obligations there seriously and is prepared to make a substantial contribution to the relief effort. Certainly this will be an early sign of the new administration's intentions.

The immediate need is for food, shelter, well-drilling equipment, and other emergency aid. Over the longer term, however, it will be necessary to build roads, schools, hospitals -- in short, to help the African nations resettle the refugees and integrate them into a productive life. The importance of such development assistance to stability and economic growth in Africa, and therefore to world stability, scarcely has to be pointed out.

It is hard to believe those voices of Africa will not b e heard.

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