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Plight of African Refugees Discussed in Tokyo - 2003-06-19

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is in Tokyo for a conference on the plight of some 15 million displaced Africans. The U.N. agency - a day before World Refugee Day - is urging countries to see refugees as a potential asset - not a problem.

Since the end of the colonial era last century, Africa has been home to some of the worst and longest conflicts in the world. The human toll has been enormous. Millions have died from combat, starvation or genocide. Tens of million more have been forced to flee. In some places, threadbare or corrupt governments have been unable or unwilling to cope. The international community has struggled to find solutions.

Now, the United Nations is calling for a shift in the way governments and development agencies see the Africa's refugees.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, speaking in Tokyo Thursday, treaded into what he called politically sensitive territory. He suggested host countries need to look at the productive capacity of refugees, rather than viewing them as merely a burden.

"You are not going to see development in Africa if you don't include refugees. And beyond that, if you don't use the productive capacity [of refugees], you run another risk. And the risk is that the young male refugees will become soldiers again," says Mr. Lubbers. "They will be invited to participate in new conflicts. And young women will become victims of human traffickers in prostitution."

The UNHCR wants returning refugees be able to play a role in national reconstruction or to contribute their skills to the communities where they settle, rather than stay years idle in makeshifts camps.

Uganda's ambassador to Japan, James Baba, says he hopes symposiums such as the one in Tokyo, will generate fresh solutions for Africa. "We don't come here necessarily to look for resources, but for ideas on how to deal with these issues -- how to get to the bottom of the causes of refugees."

Japan, for its part, has told international refugee officials it wants to see the emphasis on durable solutions - including voluntary repatriation when conditions permit, local integration into the host country or resettlement in a third country.

Ironically, Japan has kept its doors almost totally closed to refugees. According to a Japanese lawyers' group, Tokyo has accepted only about 300 refugees since signing the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees more than 20 years ago.

But Japan has won praise for its monetary contributions. Last year it donated $118 million to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), making it the second largest contributor behind the United States.