A lesson in generosity

July 28, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

ZAIRIAN soldiers have not been very friendly toll takers to the million Rwandan refugees. The soldiers have taken money, mattresses, motorcycles and farm animals. But this cruelty does not obscure a much larger point. The soldiers still let the refugees pass into Zaire.

The Rwandan exodus, while making headlines as one of the fastest sudden refugee migrations the world has ever seen, is also a stunning example of a generosity African countries have ++ shown toward one another's refugees. While the United States, the world's richest and most powerful nation, is in the midst of yet another military campaign to reject the majority of Haitian refugees, African nations, no matter how poor or despotic their leaders, have opened their gates to fleeing men, women and children.

Zaire is one of Africa's least democratic nations. President Sese Seko Mobutu's military last year killed hundreds of political opponents. Yet at the end of 1993, Zaire had 450,000 refugees from Angola, Sudan, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda, according to the annual World Refugee Survey. Zaire was one of 13 African nations that currently harbor more refugees than the United States.

While the United States allowed 150,000 asylum seekers into the country last year, Malawi had 700,000 refugees from war-ravaged Mozambique. Sudan had 633,000, primarily from Eritrea and Ethiopia. Guinea had 570,000 from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Tanzania had 480,000, primarily from Burundi, Mozambique and Rwanda. Rwanda, ironically, had harbored 370,000 refugees from Burundi. Kenya had 332,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia.

Africa has 18 nations with 100,000 or more refugees. In Benin, some of the 120,000 refugees from Togo are beginning to start farms. Ghana also has 120,000 refugees from Togo. Many Ghanaian families along the border allowed refugees to pack as many as 25 deep into their one-room homes and gave land to refugees for farming.

Guinea has officially closed its borders to refugees, but that came after it took in nearly four times the number accepted by the United States. Unlike our government, which uses the red herring that Haitian refugees are a drain on social services, including education, Guinea has let refugees borrow school buildings to educate their children.

For nearly two and a half years, ending this spring, the U.S. returned all Haitian boat refugees back to Haiti without any hearing for political asylum. Contrast this with Uganda, once a land known only for the hideous Idi Amin. Uganda had 257,000 refugees last year, and provided many with land. Of Tanzania's 480,000 refugees, according to the World Refugee Survey, nearly 300,000 have become self-sufficient.

African nations account for 13 of the world's 25 nations with the highest ratio of refugees to the total population. While refugee-to-population ratios among those 13 nations range from the 1-8 of Djibouti to the 1-54 in Zambia, the United States has a ratio of resettled refugees of 1-149. Nearly all of the 13 African nations have gross national products per capita of under $1,000, compared with the United States' $22,560.

On one hand, we gave out $452 million to international refugee aid agencies last year, the most of any nation in the world. But we also seem prepared to spend whatever it takes to bar Haitians from our back yard.

The Defense Department says it has spent $100 million in the Coast Guard blockade of Haiti, with $65 million more to be spent by fall. The barbed-wire camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- in which 70 percent of refugees were rejected for political asylum and sent back to Haiti -- cost $58.4 million from 1991 to 1993, according to the military.

Yesterday, President Clinton told reporters, "I don't think (Africa and the United States) are analogous." Mr. Clinton said African ,, nations do not "have an option" to reject waves of people in the face of widespread devastation. He also said that he has improved the process for Haitians to apply for political asylum from Haiti.

But there is no sign of major improvement over a process in which 54,000 or 58,000 applications in Haiti have not been acted on or have been rejected. Despite human rights abuses in Haiti, Mr. Clinton said, "The most important thing is you don't want to do anything that undermines the integrity of our overall immigration laws."

So while African nations offer safe haven within their borders, the United States maintains its floating Berlin Wall against Haitians. While Mr. Clinton says African countries have no option, his Haitian option is utterly selfish. On refugees, Africa is poor in cash but finds farmland to give away. On Haitians, the United States has loaded pockets and barbed wire. There can be no debate as to which place, Africa or the United States, has shown itself richer in spirit.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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