NY Times
US says definition of 'refugee' needs rethinking

January 14, 2000

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - With the number of war victims growing daily, the United States said the definition of a "refugee" was outdated and needed to cover millions of homeless people who had not crossed international borders.

But Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told the Security Council the real issue was for governments to stop the wars that victimized people.

"Without clearer, more decisive action by governments, which the Security Council has a responsibility in inspiring, designing and leading, refugee crises cannot be resolved," she said during a Thursday council debate on refugees in Africa.

"The worst pages of colonial history seem to live again in situations in which people struggle to survive while small groups benefit from Africa's wealth," she added.

British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock agreed and said the problem "we always find in Africa is that what we are doing is mopping up the misery. But we don't seem to have a handle out of the tape in which the misery is flowing."

The council debate was organized by U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who urged members to consider how the refugee agency, UNHCR, could be used to meet the growing number of war victims made homeless within their own country.

"To a person who has been driven from his or her home by conflict, there is no difference in being a victim, but they are treated differently," Holbrooke said.

"Two-thirds of the homeless people in the world are classified with the odious acronym of 'internally displaced persons,' or IDPs, but they're really refugees," he said.

UNHCR's jurisdiction covers only people who cross international borders, except in cases where the United Nations gives it a special mandate. But the mandate has been extended in recent years, especially in Kosovo or Bosnia where sorting out refugees from internally displaced people was impossible.

However, Ogata appeared unwilling to accept total responsibility for homeless war victims everywhere that would involve more than 25 million people worldwide, about half of them in Africa. In comparison, the global number of refugees is estimated at more than 11 million people, with at least 3 million of them Africans.

"I am not sure I can take care of all IDPs. It is enormous. Just by going in, you do not solve the problem," she said.

Refugee experts have been debating the issue for years, saying the distinction between IDPs and refugees internally displaced people is no longer valid. To many governments the issue was considered interference in their internal affairs.

Roberta Cohen, the co-director of a Brookings Institution program on IDPs, said creating another agency was unrealistic.

"The absurdity of the situation has become much clearer to the international community. We have to have a system that addresses the needs of people on both sides of the border," she told a news conference.

Holbrooke said UNHCR clearly had the most experience in the field and should take responsibility. The United Nations, he said, could "not fall back on one of the worst of all euphemisms: 'We're coordinating closely."'

Ogata, however, concentrated on why there were so many refugees, particularly in Africa: Gun-running from rich nations had to stop, institutions had to be expanded to mediate conflicts and police or guards were needed in refugee camps to separate civilians from fighters who fled with them.

"There are no effective conflict-resolution mechanisms in Africa -- on the contrary, armed groups waging war against governments are often openly supported by other governments.

"And inputs to turn war into peace -- and even to consolidate peace when it is attained, as in Rwanda and Liberia -- are very timid and piecemeal," she said.

"Can we speak of any substantive reconstruction program, like those generously funded by governments in Kosovo or East Timor, in any African country?" she asked.

Namibia's ambassador Martin Andjaba said the council issued too many statements without concrete action and treated African refugees differently from those elsewhere. "We in Africa are not asking for special treatment. What we are asking for is that all refugees be treated in the same manner," he said.


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