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African Officials Concerned About Long Standing Refugee Problems - 2001-12-15

African delegates attending a refugee meeting in Geneva have reiterated their commitment to helping millions of uprooted people on the continent.

But the delegates said they had no money, and appealed for international help in tackling these problems. The meeting was sponsored by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Representatives from some 50 African nations, including 30 ministers, expressed concern about their inability to resolve long standing refugee problems, and to avert new outflows of refugees.

Africa hosts 3.6 million refugees. This is almost one-third of the world's total. In addition, there are about 9.5 million internally displaced people. Many of them have lived in exile for decades, and have no immediate prospect of returning home.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond has said the African delegates were told they had to find ways for these refugees and displaced people to live meaningful lives. He says suggestions were proposed for increasing local opportunities and allowing the refugees to become self-sufficient.

"We want to look, for example, at getting governments to agree to emphasize self-reliance, integration and empowerment of refugees in longer-term development programs. Often, refugees are considered a separate category, and we want them to be included in development programs, so their productive capacity can be put to work," he said.

Many refugee situations in Africa have gone on for a very long time. For example, people in the Horn of Africa have been in exile for more than a decade. The civil war in Sudan is in its 17th year, and thousands of refugees from Somalia fled their country in 1988.

Mr. Redmond has said the African delegates looked at some specific protection issues, which have arisen in Africa over the last decade. One of the most compelling, he says, is the need to separate armed military or paramilitary people from civilians in refugee camps.

"Of course, one of the worst examples where that became a problem was in eastern Zaire following the Rwanda crisis. In recent months, there have been some successes separating military elements, notably in Zambia, as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we had people from the Central African Republic crossing, including military elements," he said.

The Organization of African Unity has passed a resolution on the separation of armed elements from civilian refugee populations. At the meeting, several delegates said they would like to adopt this resolution. But they were concerned that they, as host nations, would be responsible for caring for these armed groups.