New York Times- January 14, 2000

New York Times- January 14, 2000

 

 

U.N. Studies How Refugees Qualify to Get

Assistance

 

By BARBARA CROSSETTE

 

           NITED NATIONS, Jan. 13 -- Civil war in Angola has driven

           more than 370,000 people from the country, and everyone agrees

          that they are refugees. An additional one million to two million people

          have fled their houses, but have not crossed a border. This, in the eyes of

          the United Nations, makes them "internally displaced people," ineligible

          for international refugee aid.

 

          Why the difference?

 

          The Security Council confronted this question today in a debate that

          demonstrated how new wars demand new definitions and, probably, new

          policies, if millions of people they have made homeless are to survive.

 

          Refugee experts say 20 million or more people have abandoned their

          houses, driven forcibly by governments and guerrilla armies or voluntarily

          in search of safety, but they remain in their own countries.

 

          That means that they fall outside the purview of the organization's High

          Commissioner for Refugees.

 

          The high commissioner, Sadako Ogata, who has pushed hard in recent

          years to include millions of the internally displaced within her

          organization's reach, told the council that the war had displaced 20

          percent of Angola's population. Most, Mrs. Ogata said, are ineligible for

          international aid.

 

          "The difficulty of having access to large numbers of people in insecure

          and isolated areas is compounded by the complexity of assisting civilians

          in their own country, where their own state authorities or rebel forces are

          frequently the very cause of their predicament," Mrs. Ogata said.

 

          The United States representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, urged the

          council to rethink how the refugee organization could be retooled to meet

          a crisis that exists around the world, but is most immediately catastrophic

          in Africa.

 

          "To a person who has been driven from his or her home by conflict,

          there's no difference" between a refugee and an internally displaced

          person "in terms of what's happened to them," Mr. Holbrooke said.

          "They're equally victims. But they're treated differently."

 

          Mr. Holbrooke, the council president this month, had summoned experts

          to review refugee policies in Africa. But the debate soon broadened to

          the anomaly of continuing to hold to definitions written into the mandate

          of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office when it

          was created after World War II. At that time, most displaced people

          were fleeing from country to country.

 

          The issue is moving to the center of debate among refugee experts who

          have seen aid agencies become overwhelmed by the scale and

          circumstances of recent internal displacements and refugee movements,

          sometimes so tangled that sorting out people is nearly impossible. This

          has been the case in Africa, the Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere.

 

          In some conflicts, governments are reluctant to open their borders to

          international aid, as Russia is in Chechnya and India in occupied

          Kashmir, because the conflicts are considered internal security matters.

          There are also forced population resettlements in the name of

          antiterrorism or for large development projects.

 

          A recent study published jointly by the Brookings Institution and the

          United States Committee for Refugees, both in Washington, called the

          internal displacement of people "one of the most pressing humanitarian,

          human rights and political issues now facing the global community." It

          urged the United States, both the Clinton administration and Congress, to

          devise policies on the displaced as effective and generous as existing

          American programs for refugees.

 

          Roberta Cohen, the co-director of a Brookings program on the internally

          displaced and the co-author, with Francis Deng, a special representative

          of Secretary General Kofi Annan, of "Masses in Flight" (Brookings,

          1998), said today that establishing another agency solely for this problem

          was unrealistic.

 

          "The political will is not there, nor the resources," Ms. Cohen told

          reporters.

 

          Nevertheless, she said, the situation is "an absurdity" that treats one

          group of people inside a border differently from other members of the

          same group a few miles away on the other side.

 

          "There is now a realization that we've got to have an international system

          that addresses the needs of people on both sides of this border," she

          said. "We are not set up to do it."

 

          Mr. Holbrooke argued that the High Commissioner for Refugees offices

          was the most logical agency to concentrate efforts.

 

          "What we must do," he said, "is expand the definition of what is a

          refugee, erode if not erase the distinction between a refugee and a person

          who is internally displaced, deal with these problems, fix the responsibility

          more clearly in a single agency and not fall back on one of the worst of all

          euphemisms: 'We're coordinating closely.' "