For 22 million refugees, a chief caretaker

Whether she is scolding turbaned officials of Afghanistan's strict Islamic Taliban, defying former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, or standing up to the UN Security Council, UN refugee chief Sadako Ogata has a reputation for bluntness - with good reason.

After all, the petite, elderly Japanese woman is responsible for the lives of 22 million refugees scattered across the world - or one in every 270 people on earth.

"I'm pretty direct," Ms. Ogata says, her quaint pearls and lavender suit belying a steely personality.

Known to venture into war zones wearing a flak jacket and helmet, or jet to remote camps, Ogata is as resourceful as she is tough. When the UN Security Council failed to dispatch a police contingent to Rwandan camps, she hired and trained her own.

Ask what she does to relax, and she has a clinical, one-word answer: "Sleep."

Today, as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) turns 50 years old, Ogata deserves credit for vastly expanding its size, profile, and reach in the face of the international flood of refugees.

Founded on December 14, 1950, with a staff of 33 people, $300,000 budget, and mandate to resettle some 1 million post-World War II refugees, today the Geneva-based agency has a staff of 5,000 in 120 countries and an annual budget of about $1 billion. Much of the expansion has accompanied the mass population movements of the 1990s.

Yet for Ogata, the first female and second longest-serving UNHCR chief, the success is bittersweet. A thriving UNHCR may save more lives, but it also underscores the world's failure to stem the wave of ethnic, religious and, civil strife that forces people to flee.

"I hope we (the UNHCR) don't have to continue another 50 years, because our being busy is a reflection of a messy world," Ogata told reporters last month. She has headed the agency for 10 years and will step down at the end of this month.

Still, she predicts instability will persist for at least the next decade, although smaller refugee crises are more likely than the million-person dislocations of the 1990s. "It's the further breaking down of nation states that will lead to more conflicts and refugees and greater destabilization in the next ten years," says Ogata, a political scientist by training. "We may be entering a period where there are 200,000 [refugees] here, 200,000 there."

Since the Berlin Wall fell, the rupturing of nations from internal conflict has generated a wide range of new problems for the refugee agency.

The number of "internally displaced persons" - people forced from their homes who do not cross international borders - has increased dramatically and is now estimated at up to 25 million people in some 40 nations. That tops the number of refugees, defined by the UN as people fleeing their home country.

At the same time, refugee camps near conflict zones have become staging grounds for armed rebels and militia. Although the problem of militarized refugee camps has existed since the 1970s, it intensified in the 1990s, most strikingly with the domination of Rwandan refugee camps in eastern Zaire by armed Hutu groups in the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, industrialized states have tightened their asylum policies, stigmatizing refugees, and leading to a rise in human trafficking, according to a new UNHCR book. Other nations, worried about the threat of insurgencies, "just close the door and say 'don't come in,' " says Ogata.

Jetting around, Ogata has urged nations to fill what she sees as yawning gaps in refugee work.

High on her list today is convincing world governments to provide peacekeepers to disarm militarized groups and protect refugees and aid workers. "There is a limit to the US policy of letting everyone else send troops and be exposed to danger," she says crisply. "We have to be with the people, with the victims."

Ogata's other priority is to get beyond the cycle of crises followed by compassion fatigue. She is calling on the international community and the World Bank to back long-term development projects to rebuild economies and strengthen democratic institutions in war-devastated regions.

"How much more can you save lives? How much more can you really solve the problems?" she asks, her sober face surrounded by soft gray hair, modestly describing her life as "a series of accidents" although many would find a striking logic in her career.

Raised in "a rather liberal family" of Catholics in Tokyo, Ogata comes from a long line of statesmen and diplomats. Her great-grandfather was Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, whose assassination in 1932 marked the rise of unbridled Japanese militarism.

Ogata's grandfather was a delegate to the League of Nations and her father was a senior diplomat. She had a protected childhood living in diplomatic compounds in China and the United States.

In the 1950s, she won a Rotary Fellowship to study at Georgetown University, where she roomed with the future wife of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Ogata's list of achievements is impressive. Arriving on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, she immediately bypassed the sluggish UN appeal process and created an emergency rapid response unit, with $50 million and 50 staff on standby under her direct control.

She has hired and trained UNHCR police forces in a bid to tame militarized camps and protect her own threatened staff (19 direct staff have been killed in the field since 1992).

She has upgraded the UNHCR technologically, with satellite communications, and reached out for funding to private sources ranging from Hollywood stars to Bill Gates, whose Microsoft Corp. recently funded a high-tech system for Kosovo refugees.

Ogata has her critics, with some former UNHCR employees calling her autocratic and queenly, and complaining she has spread the agency too thin - or not done enough.

Unable to please everyone, Ogata keeps her eyes fixed on her mission. Recalling a photograph of herself surrounded by refugee children in Zaire, she reflects: "I wonder how many of them are still alive."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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