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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Refugees' Plight Extends Far Beyond Kosovo

Homelessness: About 20 million people worldwide have fled their country or have been displaced within.

April 17, 1999|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — When U.N. Security Council members emerged hours late from a closed-door meeting this week, the press corps was hungry for fresh news of Kosovo's refugees.

"What took so long?" one reporter demanded of the first diplomat to emerge.

"We had a very thorough briefing on Angola," he responded a trifle testily. "This is not a second-class problem compared to Kosovo, you know."

But experts and humanitarian workers say the truth is that the 1.6 million people now displaced from their homes in Africa's war-torn Angola will never receive the attention accorded the refugees from Kosovo.

In the past few weeks, the world has been gripped by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes. Governments and ordinary people responded swiftly to the wrenching images flashed across television screens and front pages.

But there are 18 million to 20 million more refugees and displaced people across the globe, according to the latest available figures from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. By definition, refugees are people who have fled their country; a displaced person is one who has fled home but remains within the country's borders.

"When displacement happens on a mass scale very fast, then the world is forced to look," said Robyn Groves, a spokeswoman for the refugee agency in New York. "Kosovo was a standout case. . . . Otherwise, it is difficult to get people to notice."

A few miles from camps filled with Kosovo Albanians in Macedonia, Muslims who escaped violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been waiting for eight years to go home. More than 300,000 refugees have streamed out of the African nation of Sierra Leone in recent months, and nearly a million more have been forcibly relocated inside its borders. Somali women who venture outside northern Kenyan refugee camps report being raped.

Yet there are no NATO bombs dropping, no Pentagon briefings, no live CNN coverage.

The reasons for the difference in world attention are varied, experts say, ranging from the brutal swiftness of the Yugoslav expulsion of ethnic Albanians as opposed to chronic long-term migrations, to questions of European history, American politics and race. None criticized the attention given the Kosovo refugees.

"I would never want to diminish the plight of the Kosovo refugees or any others," Groves said. "We're talking about equal tragedies."

Most of the world's refugees are non-Europeans. More than 7 million have fled their homes in half a dozen African countries.

Arthur C. Helton, director of Forced Migration Projects at the Open Society Institute in New York, said the spotlight thrown on Kosovo Albanian refugees "has something to do with it being Europe, with the fact that there is an international armed conflict going on there, and . . . clearly there is a racial dimension."

But others disagree.

"I do not think it is race," said Agwu Okali, registrar of the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. "It is a question of geographic politics and fears of world stability. Two world wars have started in the Balkans, and people are worried it is going to happen again."

"You don't hear ECOMOG [the West African peacekeeping force] criticized for not helping Kosovo, yet people seem to be criticizing NATO for not helping African refugees. . . . It's a matter of who your neighbors are," said Kathleen Newland, who handles refugee policy for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "We saw a great outpouring by Americans and others for Kurds, for Rwandans, for people who 'don't look like us.' "

Another factor is that the bulk of people who have fled their homes for political reasons are chronic long-term refugees.

An estimated 2.6 million to 4 million Afghans are trapped in limbo in camps in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere, giving Afghanistan the dubious distinction of having more refugees than any other nation. More than 630,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, are scattered in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Europe. An estimated 316,000 Vietnamese are in China, France and Scandinavian countries.

Some refugees end up in squalid camps. Others crowd in with relatives or occupy buildings abandoned by others that might not have adequate water, electricity or toilets.

Experts say one terrible aspect of the Kosovo exodus is the evidence it provides that civilians are increasingly being targeted for military purposes.

"They used to be innocent victims of war. Increasingly, there is mass displacement of specific peoples to fulfill military objectives," the U.N.'s Groves said.

"Milosevic is not alone," the Carnegie Endowment's Newland said. "With a virulent resurgence of nationalism defined in ethnic terms, there are no innocent civilians anymore."

Aid efforts are underway in many countries--the U.N. refugee commissioner's budget for this year is nearly $900 million; other agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program and scores of nongovernmental organizations provide badly needed basics such as vaccines, food and milk.

There is a bit of good news among the bleak statistics: In 1997, nearly 3 million former refugees felt safe enough to return to their homes--at least temporarily.

"There have been tremendous movements back to Mozambique, to Malawi, to South Africa and Cambodia," Newland said. "A lot of people really do go home eventually."

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