Finding solutions for the problems of Africa's refugees

Today's refugees don't have to be the refugees of tomorrow. Stark as the refugee situation is in Africa - an estimated 5 to 7 million refugees fleeing devastating droughts, border wars, civil strife, and political repression - the problem has yielded to solutions in several politically sensitive places.

In the last three years more than a million refugees in Africa have returned home under planned or voluntary repatriation programs. Thousands more are finding permanent settlement in countries where innovative ways have been found to teach many of them new skills so they can lead productive lives.

Within the last year more than 100,000 Chadian refugees in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic have found their way home under United Nations sponsorship. Although a new outbreak of civil strife in Chad threatens to undermine political stability there, practically all refugees have now returned to Chad.

The same is true in Zimbabwe. As a result of the guerrilla warfare predating Zimbabwe independence on April 18, 1980, more than 600,000 people lost their homes. About 200,000 of those fled the country. But now virtually all of them have returned home, allowing the refugee program of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to greatly reduce its operations.

Meanwhile tripartite talks between the UNHCR, Ethiopia, and Djibouti are paving the way for a voluntary repatriation of Ethiopian refugees from Djibouti back to Ethiopia. Djibouti, a tiny country bordering the Gulf of Aden, is straining under the load of some 35,000 Ethiopian refugees who constitute as much as 15 percent of the total population. The refugees are the sequel to severe droughts and armed uprisings in northern Ethiopia.

To improve the climate for the return of refugees, the Ethiopian government has issued a general amnesty to all those willing to return. The United States has allocated $900,000 toward the repatriation of Ethiopian refugees from Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti.

So far about 1,000 have already spontaneously begun their trek from Djibouti to Ethiopia even though the first organized return is not scheduled to get under way until Aug. 15. How many will respond to the offer will depend largely on the reception the initial group receives.

In another Ethiopian-related repatriation program, the UNHCR has launched a $ 20 million international fund (at least $12 million has already been pledged) to help Ethiopian refugees who have already returned from Somalia. The program applies exclusively to those who without international encouragement have already opted voluntarily to move back to Ethiopia and who are now settled there. The assistance is enough to help feed, train, and reintegrate into society as many as 200,000 possible returnees. While the Ethiopian government likes to think as many as hundreds of thousands have returned, independent sources are reluctant to go beyond the more cautious estimates of ''thousands.''

With 1 out of every 2 refugees in the world huddled in Africa, the UNHCR is working with several states to prevent refugeeism becoming chronic on the African continent.

''We feel something has to be done to put this problem on a different track, '' says Ed Savage, the director of the Washington office of the UNHCR.

To this end, two plans of action have been adopted:

1. Where possible, and where political conditions permit, to encourage people who are either refugees outside their national borders or displaced within their own country to return to their former areas. Chad and Zimbabwe are the classic examples. Ethiopia is moving in this direction even though refugees continue to stream out of the drought-stricken, violence-prone provinces of Gondar, Wollo, and Tigre.

2. Where refugees feel they cannot return safely, to assist them in self-help projects. The rationale is twofold. First, to prevent the refugees becoming an economic and social burden to their host countries, and thus reducing the security risks to those governments absorbing such a large foreign community. Second, to help the refugees feel they can still lead productive lives.

In both Sudan and Somalia, refugees are involved in a variety of projects where the emphasis is on self-reliance, maintaining a sense of self-worth, and promoting commercially viable projects. Sudan has some 600,000 registered refugees, the great bulk of them Ethiopians. Somalia has approximately 700,000 registered refugees.

Last year the amount of refugee land in Somalia under agricultural cultivation rose to some 7,500 acres, a sizable increase over the previous year. In addition there has been large-scale poultry rearing and other income-generating activities such as soap and brick making, leather and metal work.

A three-year tree and bush planting project to offset the deprivation caused by refugees scouring the countryside for wood for fuel is under way in a refugee encampment in Qorioley, some 200 miles north of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

The project would check deforestation, provide shade, fruit trees, windbreaks , and wood for fuel as well as improving the aesthetics of the barren area according to Ethan Atkins, assistant director for the Africa region of the Save the Children Federation in Westport, Conn., which initiated the project.

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