Remembering Refugees

WORLDWIDE, about 1.5 million refugees were able to return to their homelands in 1993. The estimated number of refugees worldwide dropped from 17.6 million at the end of 1992 to 16.3 million at the end of 1993. Government aid and private relief groups from many developed countries provided huge amounts of food, clothing, shelter, and other help to refugees and displaced people. Many, many lives have been, and are being, saved.

That's the good news. In fact, that's just about all the good news about refugees.

The bad news is that 1993 was a year of immense international turmoil that sent people fleeing for their lives in unprecedented numbers. A World Refugee Survey issued May 24 by the US Committee for Refugees, a private humanitarian agency, says that by the end of 1993 the number of internally displaced persons, those who seek refuge elsewhere within their home country, rose to 25 million, the highest total ever counted by the USCR.

The early months of 1994 show no letup in refugees, including at least 250,000 Rwandans who have fled to Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, and Zaire to escape Rwanda's civil war.

Though there are many critical refugee situations worldwide, Africa is clearly becoming the focus, with 32 countries hosting large refugee populations in 1993, according to USCR. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that some 6 million of the 600 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa are refugees and an additional 16 million are internally displaced. Examples: Some 600,000 Burundians have fled to Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zaire; 240,000 Togolese to Ghana and Benin; 100,000 Liberians to Guinea and Ivory Coast; 60,000 Sierra Leoneans to Guinea and Liberia.

What do all these numbers say to Americans and their policymakers? Perhaps that we should not become so fascinated with the problem of the thousands fleeing nearby Haiti for the United States that we ignore the millions in trouble farther afield. Perhaps to consider that the US ranks only 10th in per capita giving to UNHCR relief efforts; Norway and Sweden, for example, give at a rate eight times higher.

For those of us living in safe, comfortable surroundings, the thought of being forced out of our homes and becoming a refugee or displaced person is almost unimaginable.

Perhaps that is part of the problem.

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