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1/11/03 - ASSISTING REFUGEES - 2003-01-13

Last year, more than two-million refugees returned to their homes in Afghanistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called the repatriation the largest event of its kind in thirty years.

Throughout the world, the U-N refugee agency assisted some twenty-million refugees and other persons of concern in 2002. This was nearly two million fewer than the previous year. Along with Afghanistan, many refugees also began to make their way home in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka.

Despite the positive developments leading to a decline in the number of refugees worldwide, Ruud Lubbers, the U-N’s High Commissioner, said there are still issues of concern. Displaced populations need better protection. In particular, attention must be paid to the special needs of displaced women and children who make up the majority of the world’s refugees. A more equitable system of collecting and distributing aid must be found, to ensure that beneficiaries are not subject to exploitation at the hands of those disbursing such aid. And, of course, there must be permanent solutions for those uprooted.

Of special concern are parts of Africa where some long-time conflicts remain unresolved. Fighting continues in Liberia. The Ivory Coast is engulfed in civil unrest. And Tanzania still hosts one- million refugees from Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries. Some of these refugees have been there for several decades.

In the Horn of Africa, about twenty-five thousand Somali refugees left exile in Ethiopia and returned home. Eritrean refugees are returning to their homes from Sudan. But hundreds of thousands of Sudan’s own population remain refugees as peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebels continue. Elsewhere, approximately one-million people remain displaced in the Balkans, Bhutan, Chechnya, Colombia, and other places.

The United States has already contributed sixty-nine million dollars to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its 2003 programs. The U.S. contribution will be used to aid refugees and others during the early months of this year. It is part of the U.S. government’s one-hundred-twenty-five-million-dollar initial pledge announced last month in Geneva. The U.S. remains the largest donor, contributing about twenty-five percent of the U-N agency’s budget. The U.S. contributed two-hundred-sixty-five million dollars in 2002. But other countries will also need to do their share to help the world’s refugees.