More Refugees, Fewer Dollars

CONSIDER these statistics: In the last five years, an average of 2,700 people per day have been forced to leave their homelands and become refugees. There are more than 15 million refugees in the world today; 28 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have refugee populations of more than 50,000. Nine of the ten countries with the highest ratio of refugees to general population have a per capita annual income of under $1,000, usually well under. In Malawi, the fourth poorest nation in the world, one person in ten is a refugee from Mozambique. Now consider this: In the last five years, while the worldwide refugee population increased by 50 percent, the budget for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency responsible for their care and protection, rose only 25 percent. US contributions did not go up at all. In 1985, the US gave $20 per refugee for overseas assistance. This year, our government has given about half that.

It doesn't take a math wizard to see that fewer dollars divided by more desperate people equals disaster. UNHCR is crippled with the worst funding crisis in 40 years. As a result, critical food and medical services have been cut back in refugee camps. Malnutrition and mortality are up. The countries playing reluctant host to large refugee populations are growing restless and resentful.

An internal UNHCR report circulated in November documents the impact of the cuts. Up to 225,000 children in UNHCR's care are suffering from malnutrition. ``All are in danger of death,'' the report said. ``The underlying cause of the problem is simple but dramatic: a lack of food resources to cover the minimal components of the basic ration, namely, cereals, beans and oil.''

In Malawi, malnutrition has increased from 5 to 15 percent in a year, due to ``the inability of UNHCR to pay for grinding of maize for many months ... [or] to establish buffer stocks.''

A full food ration in the Sudan ``has rarely been achieved,'' the report said, and cited UNHCR plans to reduce food rations in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Honduras as ``an example of planning assistance based on resources and not on actual needs and is an extremely dangerous trend.''

Unless these trends are reversed, 1990 will be hell for refugees around the world. Contributions to UNHCR and other relief organizations have not kept pace with the growth in refugees. The US, while still the world's largest contributor to aid programs, has allowed its share of support to drop steadily for much of the '80s.

It's arguable that the US hasn't made a ``fair share'' contribution to refugee assistance since '85. Given the magnitude of the crisis, and factoring for inflation, a figure of $25 per refugee would be more in keeping with our traditional leading role in humanitarian aid. But that is a long climb from where we are. The current State Department budget for refugee assistance is $175 million. Twenty-five multiplied by 15 million comes to $375 million. That's not a gap - it's a chasm.

In order to bridge it, the US must spend its $50 million emergency reserve fund for ``urgent and unforeseen'' refugee crises. Given the emergencies in Africa and Asia, it's hard to understand why the State Department hasn't used these funds.

In addition, Congress and the administration must agree to find another $50 million in supplemental funds for refugee assistance. The State Department is seeking a $70 million supplemental to admit additional Soviet refugees this year, and Congress appears to support that request. There is good reason for this. As the Soviet Union engages in increasingly spirited debate on a host of social and political issues, strains of anti-semitism have come into the open, and Jews are clamoring to get out.

But as we strive to meet the political, moral, and financial obligations of refugee resettlement, we must give equal weight to the needs of millions of refugees worldwide who lack this option.

Only with the $100 million available through a budget supplemental and full use of the emergency refugee fund, will the United States be able to give UNHCR and other international relief agencies the resources necessary to shore up the systemic collapse that has set in - and respond to new needs.

Lack of adequate funding for overseas assistance prevents us from addressing not only critical needs, but opportunities as well. As regional tensions abate, more and more refugees - Namibians, Cambodians, South Africans, and Nicaraguans - may find they can go home again, but UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross will have insufficient resources to get them back safely or to help them rebuild their lives.

Whether we help refugees get home, or make a semblance of home where they are, there can be no more vital or fitting investment in conflict resolution than to provide for those who have suffered the worst of the world's inhumanity.

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