Unequal compassion for misery

SUN JOURNAL

Refugees: Thanks to an outpouring of aid, displaced ethnic Albanians have better food, water and shelter than their counterparts in Africa.

May 29, 1999|By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER AND ANN M. SIMMONS | T. CHRISTIAN MILLER AND ANN M. SIMMONS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

After three years of monitoring food supplies at a remote refugee camp in Somalia, one of her first crises in Macedonia was an urgent request from a medical team. A diabetic refugee had just crossed the border. Could she provide a special diet?

She could not believe what she was hearing, much less that she was able to fulfill the request.

"In Africa, we don't have special food or diets. There are no diabetics in the camps," she says. "They just die."

Food, shelter, medical care, recreational facilities -- all are more abundantly available for the ethnic Albanian refugees than for their counterparts in African camps. Humanitarian groups cite a number of factors, including a flood of aid money, but also handier logistics and different cultural expectations.

While nothing compares to a stable home and secure community, refugee workers say, many African refugees came from conditions of near-absolute poverty and find camp life an improvement in their material circumstances. Many ethnic Albanians, by contrast, were materially better off than the Serb soldiers who drove them from their homes.

The camps in Africa and Europe are worlds apart:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is spending about 11 cents per day per refugee in Africa. In the Balkans, the figure is $1.23 per refugee per day, more than 11 times greater.

Some refugee camps in Africa have one doctor for every 100,000 refugees. In Macedonia, camps have as many as one doctor per 700 refugees.

Refugees at most camps in Albania have clean, readily available water. In Eritrea, families as large as 10 are given about 3 1/2 gallons of water to last three days, according to Mary Anne Fitzgerald of Refugees International.

The camps in Africa hold as many as 500,000 people. Up to 6,000 a day die from cholera and other diseases. In Macedonia, the largest camp holds 33,000 people. There have been no deaths from epidemic or starvation.

The most common explanation for the gap in resources is culture. U.N. officials and aid workers say that European refugees used to cappuccino and CNN need a higher standard of living to maintain a sense of dignity and stability.

Others offer a blunt assessment: They say wealthy, First-World donors and the aid agencies they support feel more sympathy -- and reach deeper in their pockets -- for those with similar skin color and background.

munal spigot.

Still, the meager shelter and supplies are far better than those provided to Gashi's counterparts in Africa. Typically, African refugees sleep in the open or under makeshift shelters of branches, leaves, mud or plastic sheeting provided by an aid agency. They rarely have canvas tents or prefabricated housing.

Most of the 300,000 or so Eritreans deported from Ethiopia back ald. In a semidesert terrain, where the afternoons are blazing hot and the nights freezing cold, 1,200 tents are available for some 16,000 families.

Another major difference is in the type of food supplied. World Food Program officials say European and African refugees are getting about 2,100 calories per day of food rations.

But for the Kosovo Albanians, those calories come in the form of tins of chicken pate, foil-wrapped cheeses, fresh oranges and milk. Some ready-made meals contain coffee and fruit tarts. Water is donia, German officials have installed a fully functioning sewage-treatment system.

In Africa, refugees are far less likely to receive ready-made meals. They must make most of their food from scratch -- a practice reflecting the simpler lifestyles of the area, say U.N. officials. Instead of meals, they are given basic grains such as sorghum or wheat.

"Here in Africa, we see people who have walked naked, without a thread on their back, who don't have a grain of rice," says Nina Galbe, a Nairobi-based spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. "With all due respect to the horrors the people of Kosovo have suffered, they are dressed in their winter clothes; the babies are kept in their blankets. They are not malnourished."

Beyond such basics as shelter and food, the differences become even more stark.

The camps in the Balkans have mobile phones that refugees can use. There are soccer fields, basketball courts and pingpong tables. One camp has a children's center with two theaters showing films. At Stankovac, a camp of about 21,000, hot showers, communal kitchens and street lighting are planned.

Such extras are nonexistent in Africa, according to those who have worked in both areas.

"Compared to the refugee camps in Africa, Stankovac is a five-star hotel," says Marion Droz, a Red Cross field worker who also worked on the Rwanda crisis earlier this decade.

The primary explanation for the stark contrasts, according to U.N. and aid groups, is the differences between the backgrounds of the refugees in the camps.

In Africa, where many refugees eke out existence in seminomadic tribes, the bare provisions of shelter and health care offered by the refugee camps are a step up in life for many.

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