Million & Counting Threats to Global Stability, Victims of 'Compassion Fatigue'


June 05, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

There are people on the run all across the globe and, more and more, people unable to run far enough, people who are trapped. Taken together, they are the luckless and usually innocent victims of international war and civil conflict, the human chaff of a new world order no one could have foreseen.

There always were refugees and displaced people. There always will be. But there are probably more today than ever before, and the world seems reluctant to confront that fact. It's not the first time this reluctance has revealed itself.

They huddle in camps, disoriented and displaced, existing under plastic tarpaulins and other make-do shelters. They swat flies in the heat and crouch in the mud. They don't know what to do, or where to go, so they go nowhere and sink ever deeper into their squalid circumstances.

AThey survive on the bread and soup of the international charities and the United Nations, these agencies themselves supplied by the donor countries of Europe and North America.

It wasn't too long ago that the face of an African child, frightened and hungry, could draw out the sympathies of people in the richer countries and, more importantly, stimulate a reflex toward rescue.

That face became emblematic of the 1980s. But with all symbols it soon lost its human dimension, its link to the actual flesh-and-blood child. Now that face stirs fewer people.

The child has fallen victim again, this time to a syndrome %J described as "compassion fatigue."

Refugees and displaced people, and what to do about them, pose an immediate and future threat to global stability. That is the consensus of those charged with dealing with that problem, and other observers as well.

"The traditional system for protecting refugees has come dangerously close to breaking down," said Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in her agency's report for 1993.

How bad is it? Why isn't more being done about it?

Sylvana Foa, Ms. Ogata's spokeswoman, said in an interview from her office in Geneva that the UNHCR today counts 20.7 million refugees in the world. By definition these are people who have fled across an international border. Her figure reveals an increase of about 2.5 million since the 1993 report came out last November.

The advance in this specific index of misery has been inexorable. In 1960, the UNHCR registered only 1.4 million refugees worldwide. In 1970, it had reached 2.5 million, by 1983, 11 million. Since then it has nearly doubled.

In addition to the refugees, an additional 25 million people are internally displaced. They have been driven from their homes by armed conflict but have not been taken in by another country. They are in camps in Bosnia, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Rwanda and elsewhere.

In Rwanda alone there are between 1 million and 2 million of these internally-displaced persons, IDPs as they are called. They are the targets of troops on both sides of that ethnic/political conflict, men with such an appetite for homicide they have filled several African rivers and lakes with corpses.

In all, there are 45.7 million souls displaced internally or externally. That means, as Ms. Foa calculates, 1 of every 122 people on the planet has been driven from his or her home.

The UNHCR will spend $1.4 billion this year to provide relief to these people. Most of it will finance UNHCR programs. About a third of it will help support the work of hundreds of other private charities, such as the American Red Cross, Save the Children, etc.

The United States has historically contributed 22 percent of this budget.

The 45.7 million refugees and IDPs are only the bystanders of human conflict and organized warfare -- not the victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods or famine. Nor does it include more than 2 million Palestinians, who are not part of the count because they are cared for by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, set up in 1949, two years before the UNHCR was established.

Bosnia alone has 2.7 million people displaced within its own borders, and there are lesser but significant numbers in Georgia.

"It's a frightening situation," said Ms. Foa. She wonders why it is not at the top of the United Nations' agenda, where it clearly is not. "During 1992, for example, we saw 10,000 people being driven out of their country every single day. That's a lot of people," she said. "It creates instability in other countries. It creates environmental damage in other countries. The [conflict in Rwanda] has created an environmental catastrophe in Tanzania."

(In the Ngara district near the Rwandan border, refugees have already stripped some 2,000 acres of forest, according to a report last month by the British Broadcasting Corp.)

"People want to close their eyes to this," she said. "They want to close their borders, too."

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