IMPRESSIONS FROM ICARA
The General Assembly of the United Nations in November of 1980, called on the Secretary-General to convene an international conference to mobilize world support for African refugees. In concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Secretarial of the Organization of African Unity, April 9-10 heralded the opening of the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1970 there were an estimated three-quarters of a million refugees in Africa; by 1975, one million; by 1977, 3.7 million and by 1980, 5 million. Their numbers have increased by a factor of five in as many years. With one in every two refugees a child, with 60 to 80% of the refugees women and girls and two in ten handicapped, it is startling that support has not been mobilized sooner.
The migration patterns of refugees and returnees, which unfortunately tends to occur within 18 of the poorest of the continent's 50 countries, are almost circular paths across Ethiopia, the Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Chad, and Uganda. Zaireans move into Zambia and Zambians into Zaire and so on. Repatriation is the ultimate goal by Africans, who stress their importance of maintaining refugees in other African countries, rather than settling them in Europe or America.
The UNHCR publications indicate that the majority of African refugees travel between rural zones although some settle in urban areas. Both spontaneous and organized settlement occur. Spontaneous rural settlements are established near existing villages or in open land near the border, often in areas inhabited by peoples of similar ethnic background. Organized rural settlements are planned by the host government and are established on uninhabited or sparsely settled land. There are now 66 planned rural settlements in 14 countries accommodating one million persons.
Planned settlements, with fluctuating populations seeking food, water, basic social necessities, and the education essential for entry not the mainstream of the host country, strain the resources of host governments and the endurance of the local population which is regularly inundated with new waves of refugees. For the refugees, new environments, new lifestyles, family upheavals and subsequently new authority roles for women as heads of families are all a part of the difficult transition. Adolescent girls, acting as heads of households for their younger brothers and sisters, are often molested. Daily deaths in some refugee camps form part of the disaster painted by official publications and by conversation with individuals who have visited them. Administrators' hopes continue to weaken as the overwhelming tasks for survival grow.
With approximately 9 1/2 million refugees in the world, one wonders, along with the African delegates and diplomats, why there has been such silence on this catastrophe by the international media. American television seems to have discovered this "Trauma of our Times," as the UNHCR releases term it, only a few week before the ICARA Conference. Brief, late-night public service programs showed starving mothers with their dying children; one major network news programs filmed children being weighed daily to see if height and weight measurements allowed them to eat that day. The Africans' bitterness with the situation is understandable.
The moral obligation of an extended world family, with each of us as one another's keeper was continually stressed in the speeches of the African delegates as they pledged their humanitarian and fiscal support during the days of the Conference. In addition, Nigeria's Foreign Minister Alhaji Ali Baba, expressed the feelings of numerous participants.
We wish to take the opportunity of this international forum to publicly reject the specious and tendentious claim that African refugees are the sole products of domestic political instability and border disputes. It is clear that the so-called political instability and border disputes, that are such a plague on the continent, stem directly from the effects of colonialism and the destabilizing and meddlesome activities of big-power rivalry and subterranean influence in Africa...Without prejudice to the actions that must be taken to eliminate the root causes of refugees, we ask only that this international conference seen as a humanitarian endeavor; we urge individual nations of the world to invest in the development of the, otherwise wasted, human resources of our continent for the overall benefit of mankind.
For every question the Conference answered, it opened the way for dozens more. A previous conference on the subject of African refugees took place at Arusha, Tanzania in May 1979. Two years have passed and the number of refugees is still escalating at such a pace that international agencies see no way of coping with the problem. With at least half of the five million refugees starving in countries where per capita annual income ranges from $60 to a few hundred, and with the annual allotment per African refugee of $22.00 per year or 6-7 cents per day (as compared to the UNHCR world-wide average of $50 per year).
Why then has the rest of the world not discovered this abyss of human suffering in its midst? Why are nearly all the world's refugees people of color? Why is America dieting and the Third World starving? Why are our Black sisters and brothers being crucified while we stand just out of earshot holding the nails? Racism is political. So while African starvation may be an economic problem, its solutions are political.
There is an ancient theme in African folk literature of the mystical child abiku which dies and returns to be born again and again. The image of starving children dying, new babies being suckled by mothers barely alive, the disjuncture of the extended family and the role of "head of household" falling upon women who by cultural tradition may not have needed to be literate or to make all decisions for their families by themselves, form a tragic mosaic. Yet there is a strength in Africa which, despite the pessimism of some leaders as to whether Africa can exist for another decade, gives hope. The movement of the refugees, their deaths, their new births may someday be told as part of folklore connected with its ancient accumulated associations. If so, beware the rest of the world, because these will indeed be a special people who may embody hope and love strengthened by a new interweaving of cultures and blood in a continent whose size and history is underestimated while its wealth is being measured and carted off.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.