A HIGH-RANKING United Nations official warns that a ``poverty bomb'' could soon explode in third-world countries with serious consequences for Europe, North America, and other developed areas. Thorvald Stoltenberg, UN high commissioner for refugees, says hundreds of millions of people living in poverty are already beginning to leave their homelands in search of better lives.
``This is a mass movement of people that ... will be one of the most dramatic developments of the 1990s,'' he says. The dimensions of the problem are ``not yet fully grasped by governments, people, or parliaments.''
The surge of people from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East should be recognized as a serious, long-term security problem by Western organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Mr. Stoltenberg says.
The commissioner's comments, made at a breakfast meeting with reporters, echo warnings from other experts on world population. In the May/June issue of ``The American Enterprise,'' for example, a French demographer writes about the potential ``Africanization'' and ``Islamization'' of Europe during the next several decades.
Jean-Claude Chesnais, head of the demography and social department at the Institut National d''Etudes Demographiques in Paris, says Europe will feel the impact of two historic population developments.
First, declining birthrates in Europe will shrink the supply of native workers. Already in some European regions and communities, such as Liguria, Italy, deaths exceed births by a wide margin.
Second, birthrates in Africa are holding at record-high levels. African women are averaging between four and six children each.
The long-term results of this dichotomy between African and European birthrates are expected to be dramatic. Professor Chesnais projects that within 35 years, modest-sized African countries such as Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco will equal or exceed the current populations of Germany, France, and Britain (55 million to 60 million). Egypt could reach 95 million, and Turkey, 100 million by 2025.
Europe will come under pressure to accept growing numbers of immigrants from Africa, as well as from Mideast nations, such as Iraq and Iran. This could lead to a rapid increase in the Muslim population of Europe.
France already is home to 5 million Muslims, a development that has fueled a social backlash and increased the political power of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. Resentment in France against immigrants is particularly keen in industrialized urban areas where as much as 20 to 30 percent of the population now consists of newcomers from North Africa.
Commissioner Stoltenberg, who is a native of Norway, suggests that one answer may be greater Western efforts aimed at economic development of the third world.
Stoltenberg suggests that with current population trends, the sharp differences in wealth between the rich and poor nations cannot be sustained. A typical European currently enjoys living standards seven times higher than those in Africa. A typical citizen of the United States has four times the buying power of the average Latin American.
All this has become intolerable because of the worldwide communications revolution - radio, TV, motion pictures - which has allowed people in impoverished nations to learn about Western prosperity. Even in the most remote African village, transistor radios have opened up the world, Stoltenberg says.
Unless the West acts, the results could be grave, the commissioner warns. He predicts ``increased frustration, increased conflict, increased violence - not traditional war, but terrorism. ... It has already started. And if you combine this development with smaller and easier-to-handle nuclear weapons, you have the real security threat of the future.''
Meanwhile, the commissioner is circling the globe in search of greater support for UN programs to help political refugees.
Stoltenberg's budget - $550 million this year - falls $200 million short of current needs, he says. The number of political refugees worldwide has nearly doubled since 1980, from 8 million to 15 million, but funding has not kept pace.
Today the UN has barely $40 a person per year to care for refugees at camps around the world.
Stoltenberg says the most worrisome refugee situation today is in the Horn of Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from war and famine. Public sympathy for the plight of that region led to an outpouring of contributions two years ago, including money raised by rock stars. But today the Horn seems forgotten.
``There seems to be a fatigue, a frustration, about the Horn of Africa,'' Stoltenberg says. ``And that makes fund-raising very difficult.''