|HELPING THE DISPOSSESSED|
July 21, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: There are more than 22 million refugees across the world, and six million of them are in Africa. This woman has spent nearly a decade focused on their dilemma. Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says her mission is to find food, water, shelter, and protection for the refugees, and when possible, help them to go home.
Last month, Ogata spent two weeks meeting refugees and heads of state in six African nations: Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Millions of African refugees in these countries have been displaced by years of border wars, ethnic disputes, and human rights abuses. First stop was Sudan, host to one of the largest refugee populations in the region, estimated at more than 390,000. Most are Eritreans who've fled their country's with Ethiopia . Almost 100,000 have fled to Sudan just in the last two months. Meanwhile, Sudan's own people are spilling across its borders. Years of civil war, coupled with drought and famine, have forced more than 375,000 Sudanese refugees into neighboring countries since 1983.
Violence in the Democratic Republic the Congo has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands more. The country, once called Zaire, has been crisscrossed with troops from neighboring countries and violent rebel groups from within during two civil wars in as many years. Citizens of neighboring Rwanda and Burundi have fled to the democratic Republic of the Congo to escape battles between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in their own countries. Rwanda and Burundi have sent troops to support rebels trying to overthrow the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laurent Kabila. Some 60,000 Rwandans and 20,000 Burundian refugees who fled the ethnic conflicts in their respective countries are thought to remain in inaccessible areas of the eastern part of the country. For years, the High Commissioner has called on the world community to bring pressure on warring countries. Ending the conflicts would stop many of the refugee flows.
Ogata leaves her post as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the end of the year. And now, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata. She joins us here in Washington. Madame commissioner, welcome.
SADAKO OGATA: Thank you very much.
RAY SUAREZ: You're just back from Africa. And we heard a litany of the really tragic cases through the Great Lakes region. Now that you're back, can you point to any bright spots?
SADAKO OGATA: Yes. There are lots of continuous tragedies, and if you say the bright spot is, even if the situation right now is dismal, when the peace talks bear fruit, there is going to be possibility of people going home. And maybe the brightest spot today is in Burundi where President Mandela's peace efforts may bear fruit in a not too distant future. In which case, we will be very busy bringing back some 400,000 Burundi refugees from Tanzania. I cannot say this will take place very soon, but I hope so. And there we have to start preparing for them coming home and making the Burundi... I just opened a school there, and hopefully that there will be more children going to school, and therefore there will be need for schools and various facilities. So that is about the most bright spot of the country, six countries that I went this time.
RAY SUAREZ: And wars continue in several other countries. Have you got you the tools you need to sustain people until they can go home?
SADAKO OGATA: This is constant appeal for funds, assistance, and also trying to appeal to the leaders to look at the human costs. Congo is the worst place. I have seen... I've gone to these countries several times in the past. But unless they can get the conflict down, we can just barely help these people survive. But the human cost is something that the leaders must think much more, and this was the kind of messages I was also giving to the leaders.
RAY SUAREZ: Recently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, has been talking about making a distinction between people who are chased out of their home but remain in their home country, versus those refugees who cross international borders. Do they have a different status in the eyes of the United Nations, and is this a useful or important distinction for us to make, because there are millions of them as well?
SADAKO OGATA: The legal distinction is important to make, because once they cross the border and no longer under their government's protection, my office comes in, clearly, to get them safety, setting up camps where possible, and I can intervene on behalf of these people. These people are non-nationals in a foreign land. This is where my office function comes in. There are many who do not quite cross the border, fleeing from the same causes, and inside their country, and very often we do help both of them. But it's more difficult to help them in their own country when the country situation, the authorities themselves, are the causes of their flight. But in terms of trying to help them, giving them the basic necessities, trying to give them more safe conditions is something we try. I'm not saying we succeed all the time, because there the big obstacle is we cannot reach them in the midst of the conflict, and we cannot assure their security nor the security of our own staff.
RAY SUAREZ: I know that in diplomatic terms it's sometimes tough to bring this up, but are there some refugees who are simply never going to go home? Do we have to begin, in the world community, to look at large numbers of people and say, well, we now have to look at them as living where they live now?
SADAKO OGATA: Oh, I think we should. And always we think that the solutions are of three kinds. First of all, those who will go home after the conditions that led them to flee improves. I mean war is over. Mozambique was a typical example. We took back some 1.8 million people there when the war is over. And this is why we talked about Burundi. If the conflict inside Burundi is over, they will go home. But then there are those who become assimilated, can stay in the country, and be given chances to work. The Sudanese refugees in Uganda, northern part of Uganda where I visited is a typical example where Uganda allowed them to work in the field and gave them land. So there they're quite resettled. And I think many of them will stay, although they all say they want to go back.
So there's a community... There's a communal spirit there, too, because many of the Ugandans who receive these people were once refugees in Sudan, and so there is this feeling of sympathy. So that kind... if they choose to stay on, I think they can. And the third category are those who think they will never go back home or can stay where they are being... living as refugees and they seek resettlement in another country like in the United States who has brought in a lot of African refugees into the country. So there are different ways of solving their problems.
RAY SUAREZ: In some of the countries that you've had to deal with in recent years, even people who have made it into camps and are getting supplies and getting clean water, are in danger. There are security problems.
SADAKO OGATA: Yes, this is where we try very hard to eliminate the security problem, so if there are... I mean, it's a large number of people. There are common criminals, and so on. So we try to bring in some police-type work. I mean, like in the Tanzanian camps we are helping Tanzanian police be able to perform these duties much better by bringing in some equipment and also doing some training. So it's a varied work that we do.
RAY SUAREZ: Have you had any luck in getting people to live with each other? I mean, in Timor or the Balkans, there are refugees fighting each other.
SADAKO OGATA: That is the ultimate solution I think: People fleeing conflicts going into another country, going back home. This we face a lot in Bosnia or Rwanda where finally they have a chance to live together. I am trying to promote the idea of coexistence. I mean reconciliation is a grand word. I mean, sometimes it's an objective of the last resort. But before that, I think they have to learn to live together. We have taken initiatives, women's initiatives, we call them, of bringing Rwandan women together of different... Hutus and Tutsis who had different experiences, talk over things; we just provide opportunities. I think job sharing is going to be very important among people who had different backgrounds on the different sides of various conflict, to have to start working together. So these are measures that we have to take.
RAY SUAREZ: Last year you wrote in an article, "Humanitarian aid will remain a band-aid applied to a gaping wound unless there's the political will to tackle root causes." Now that you're in your last months as high commissioner, can you look back and say that you finally convinced countries that root causes are really where this battle starts?
SADAKO OGATA: No... Well, I know that that is the cause. At the same time, for governments who are unstable-- and most of them are unstable when there are large refugees either fleeing or receiving-- to convince them, that is not easy. So I think step by step my agency, or those who are involved in humanitarian work, will have to take measures that would lead to eliminating root causes, and this community work, coexistence kind of thing...
RAY SUAREZ: For the wealthy countries, as well, isn't it easier to load up a plane than to settle a conflict once and for all?
SADAKO OGATA: Oh, that is true, yes. But I think we live in a world together. And you cannot feel very safe if you know that part of the world is in fire or in conflict. And I think this kind of sense of sharing has to spread in the wealthier countries, too. Band-aids will not solve the problems forever.
RAY SUAREZ: What would you like to accomplish in these last months? Are there some things that you're close to?
SADAKO OGATA: Oh, I think if there are any opportunities for people returning, I'd like to promote that. And this is why I like to follow very much the peace process in Burundi. The solution is what I would like to follow up -- and also to come up with ideas and be a kind of advocate of the kind of process required to bring refugees back home, people living together again. I think there are concrete measures I would like to take.
RAY SUAREZ: Sadako Ogata, thank you for being with us.