The chief of the U.N.'s refugee agency today chided the world's richest countries for neglecting Africa while pumping billions of dollars into the refugee crisis in Kosovo.
Japanese diplomat Sadako Ogata, speaking before the U.N. Security Council, said there are 6 million refugees and internally displaced people in Africa, several times more than in Kosovo. Failure to deal with Africa's humanitarian problems, she warned, would give the appearance that the council has a double standard, one for Europeans and another for Africans.
Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said her office has received only 25 percent of its recent requests, totaling $165 million, for aid to confront refugee crises in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, only 60 percent of her $137 million annual budget for Africa has been funded.
In contrast, the UNHCR has received commitments of $265 million, including at least $50 million from the United States, for its emergency program in Kosovo. And many more millions are being spent there by other U.N. agencies and international organizations.
"There is a perception of disparity in the assistance given," said Ogata. While Kosovo is witnessing "one of the most spectacular reverse population movements in contemporary history," she said, tens of thousands of new refugees are taking flight in Africa.
Last week, 30,000 people fled an "almost forgotten civil war" in the Congo Republic and entered Gabon. And, in the past three weeks, some 14,000 soldiers and civilians have departed the former Zaire, now called Congo, for the Central African Republic.
Africa's worst refugee crisis, she added, was caused by the war in Sierra Leone, where more than 10 percent of the population, about 500,000 people, fled the country. A decade of conflict in the West African nation has driven down life expectancy to 37 years -- the lowest in the world -- and has set the stage for some of Africa's most unspeakable atrocities.
"Images of African refugees are not shown on our television screens, but the plight of these people is very much real," said Namibia's ambassador, Martin Andjaba, complaining that "there is selectivity applied in . . . financial support."
The suggestion of a double standard clearly touched a nerve among American and European officials. Peter Burleigh, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that Washington is committed to Africa, noting that the State Department last week announced an additional contribution of $11.7 million to UNHCR, of which $6.6 million is for Africa.
"It is not by criticizing aid to victims in Kosovo that those obstacles in Africa will be overcome," Burleigh said. "We must instead look at the international community's response to the Kosovo crisis, take inspiration from what has been proved possible, and then work together to ensure that the same positive results are achieved in Africa."