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Refugees Magazine Issue 131 (Africa at a Crossroads) - Editorial: "The Iraq effect..."

Refugees Magazine Issue 131 (Africa at a Crossroads) - Editorial: "The Iraq effect..."

1 June 2003

While the world was mesmerized by the war in Iraq, Africa's refugees have slipped a little bit deeper into misery and despair.

When coalition forces moved into Iraq, aid workers and journalists stood by in Jordan, Iran, Syria and Turkey, ready to receive hordes of Iraqi refugees who never came.

Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 civilians escaped from the civil war in Côte d'Ivoire into eastern Liberia, itself wracked by another conflict. On the outskirts of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, there were no embedded journalists to cover a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in which hundreds of civilians were reportedly abducted or slaughtered. Remember Guinea, the West African country that was in the news when it was being courted for its vote on a Security Council resolution? More than 7,000 Liberian refugees, many with gunshot wounds, arrived there recently. Aid workers struggled to transport them to a safer area away from the border.

In southern Chad, more than 30,000 refugees from the Central African Republic sleep under trees, waiting to see what will happen at home following the overthrow of the Patassé government recently (not much was heard of the regime change there).

Of course, it was hard to mobilize interest in Africa's refugees even before the fighting started in Iraq. On Valentine's Day the U.N. Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme warned lack of funding would force a halt in food deliveries to refugee camps in Africa.

But within a week of issuing an appeal for $1.3 billion to feed Iraq's hungry people (who had two months supply on hand), the World Food Programme received pledges of $315 million - nearly three times the amount called for in the African appeal.

In recent testimony before the U.S. Congress, even before news filtered out of another appalling massacre of nearly 300 civilians in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the advocacy group Refugees International pointed out that more people had died in the Congo in one week due to violence, malnutrition and disease than died in the war in Iraq to that date.

Editorial pages and talk shows have been abuzz with scenarios for the rehabilitation of Iraq. The first anniversary of the end of Angola's 27-year civil war passed virtually unnoticed, as did calls for the World Bank to extend the scope of its reintegration assistance to cover not just the former UNITA rebel soldiers, but also thousands of Angolan women abducted and forced to become 'wives' of rebel troops.

Opening a Model U.N. in Ottawa, Stephen Lewis, the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, mused about what could happen if the Global Fund set up to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis were fully funded, before telling 800 university students that the fund was nearly bankrupt.

So while Iraq dominates the world spotlight, spare a thought for Africa's silent emergencies and the hope of one African refugee: "If only a coalition would come to rescue us."

Judith Kumin, UNHCR's Representative in Canada, first wrote this opinion piece for the Montreal Gazette.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 131: "Africa at a Crossroads" (April 2003).