Refugees & Their Creators

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
Jan 18, 2001

When former Dutch Christian Democrat Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers emerged as the favorite over the ultra liberal Environment Minister Jan Pronk for the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the decision caused a controversy and media event in Holland. Many feared Lubbers was too out of touch with the chaos of refugees producing countries to function in this crisis-plagued organization. Now, the man is bent on disappointing his critics. He seems destined to challenge the prevailing wisdom of tackling the refugee mills without dealing with the political-security problems linked to them.

In an AFP story headlined "World will pay big price for ignoring refugees-Lubbers", Lubbers is elevating the refugee plague to a level beyond the prevailing apolitical options linked endless provision of relief to limitless numbers of refugees without concrete political-security solutions.

"It would be nonsense to praise UNHCR for its care for refugees," in the absence of the world community making "political efforts and, where needed, military efforts" to prevent and solve the problem, Lubbers said in New York. He made a particular reference to West Africa, specifically Guinea, where over 300,000 refugees are wandering like wild animals from Charles Taylor's private armies of plunder

Although Lubbers praised ECOWAS for its recent decision to deploy 1600 troops along the "wild-wild west" Guinea-Liberia- Sierra Leone borders, he warned that the project would fail without international backing. A successful businessman turned politician, Lubbers said the "refugees are too scared to stay in camps, on the run We're talking really big numbersGuinea is flooded with refugees and becoming itself a bit unstable" with growing resentment of the refugees by poor people who cannot even meet their basic needs", he added. Expectedly, the West Africans themselves have made it clear they coined the deployment project relying on international finance

When people were forced to flee, he went on, UNHCR had "a responsibility for them to go back, or to find a place somewhere else, to settle in another country," the AFP quoted him as saying.

"Lubbers repeatedly emphasised the contrast between the misery of the world's 30 million international and internal refugees and the ease of those living in the wealthiest nations", the AFP reported, adding, "My responsibility is to solicit funds from this rich world for those who need protection," he said. "Countries and peoples are more and more connected to each other, through trade and investment and what have you, but there is a downside to all this," he said.

"We will pay an enormous bill if we neglect the problem," he said. He recalled that his predecessor Sadako Ogata "had started to make it clear that we cannot talk of the protection of refugees only when they are produced," he said. Lubbers made it clear preventive action was also required to stop people becoming displaced.

Lubbers message to the international community carries multiple implications. For decades, the world has treated the symptoms of the refugee plague, never the plague itself. Mrs. Ogata the Japanese academic who preceded Lubbers, repeatedly warned that without a departure fro relief to development, something impossible without security of people, the refugee problem is eternal.

The fact of the matter is that refugees are political creations and there are no better examples than the cases of Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, etc. In the DRC, over 1.5m people were killed in an insane struggle for power. The population has been displaced while tens of thousands others have fled to neighboring states. In Liberia despite the "end" of the war about three years ago, the country remains one of the biggest refugee-producing countries in Africa. Displacement is rampant as insecurity growing spreads. Soldiers, meaning former combatants in army uniforms, remain law unto themselves, living off the population and terrorizing them to do so. Charles Taylor may have drafted the blueprint for transforming people's misery into a personal economic and financial bonanza, but his policies are inextricably linked to refugee production within the region. The spree of looting in Taylor's war, even after he was elected President, could not end. In 1999, he admitted that his troops had looted UNHCR and other relief agencies and promised to pay for the looted items. The truth is that many of the trucks, cars, valued at several million dollars, were transformed into his Government property, according to a deputy chief of security within his Government who later defected.

This plague of looting relief agencies and kidnapping or killing staff has been exported to Guinea, one of Africa's largest refugee-hosting counties. Says a missionary worker on the conditions of fleeing Liberian, Sierra Leoneans and Guinea's displaced:

"Many of the children died from exposure. Many old people were not able to make the journey...They died on the way, they were just left behind. Many of the women either delivered on the way, had premature deliveries, lost the children, and many died themselves. And so the loss of life will not even be possible to estimate at this time. Who knows what will happen to these people. After all, they ran away from the RUF in the first placeYou cannot say that refugees should be left where they are, because where they are is as volatile, if not more volatile than a large portion of Sierra Leone at the minute. There's no way to call the area of the Forest Region safe at this moment. And I think the proof of that is in the way the Guineans have moved. And that in itself, what's it like if you see the situation where the refugees are surrounded by completely empty villages, empty towns. Do you stay trapped inside there and say it's not safe to move these somewhere else? I don't think so. I ran for my life. I find it impossible to think of saying to someone, 'You stay here and wait while I find myself a safe haven"

Such levels of inhumanity thrown on the innocent by individuals in political leadership is at the bedrock of the refugee problem. For political and economic convenience, the world has treated Africa's rogue "presidents" as honorable men because they came to power in "internationally supervised democratic elections" even if their activities point to tying the international community to endless provision of humanitarian funds, as opposed to funding development programmes. Now in league with international underworld figures, national criminals in political power are the worst threat to international peace, people who will make the "world pay the price" for ignoring the fundamental causes of problems that lead to refugees. For each European, such as the Dutchman Gus van Kouwenhoven mentioned in detailed in the recent UN Panel of Experts report, hundreds of Africa's refugees will storm into Europe and other wealthy countries. Tens of thousands will cluster into neighboring states such as Guinea with minimal levels of security until they too, fall prey to the masters of anarchy for personal wealth.

Without tackling the fundamental roots of refugee production as Lubbers argues, provision of relief and "humanitarian" aid will dominate global development. Policies against refugees are getting more and more xenophobic.

Fancy Programmes such "disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of combatants, however well-meaning, are losing their essence. The assumption behind such programmes is that those to be "reintegrated" live outside society. It is assumed that fighters of the RUF and NPFL were actually guerrillas living in the bush waging "liberation wars." But the fact is that these men and women live "normally" within society. In Liberia as in Sierra Leone, rebel commanders and underlings are "businessmen" having "normal" families. Their wives, husbands and children live "normally" amongst the people they torment. NPFL fighters were known to have extensively engaged in commerce. Along with their wives and children, they sought to make money while instituting killing sprees. They lived not in the forest of guerrilla camps, but in seized home victims they butchered. They rode the best cars looted from their dead victims, wore the clothes of the dead victims. "Reintegrating" such people with the hope of instilling moral values of knowing the difference between good and evil has proved counterproductive in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Without rethinking the usefulness of such programmes, they will remain counterproductive, while encouraging the "wretched of the earth" that their material liberation rests with "liberating" their victims of life and security. The repercussions of continuously believing in such failed concepts are many.

In Europe, hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them economic refugees in search of the good life invisible for them, are flocking in by the hour as local resentment grows. In Germany, many foreigners have been attacked and a number of them killed. Britain is getting desperate against refugees invasion. Even within Africa, antagonism against African refugees is growing. African refugees in South Africa, according to reports, are facing severe maltreatment and local black resentment. Many have been bundled off the streets, beaten and thrown in prison. A white face is far acceptable in post-Apartheid South Africa than a black face. (A South African TV journalist, asked to produce his identity papers by white policemen, refused. He paid the price when he was thrown in prison.)

In the Ivory Coast, West Africa's gate for terror that is producing large numbers of refugees and horrors, Africans have been the targets anytime disenchantment brews. Simply put, an African as a refugee in another African country is a life of misery. Benefits not enjoyed by nationals in the midst of unemployment and poverty cannot be expected for refugees.

But contrary to fears, Lubbers, confronted with the realities, may chart a vibrant course in handling the plague of refugees. The Dutch Government's nominee for the post was Jan Pronk, an active and abrasive man well known for his generous pro- Third World policies and generosity. So most liberals bowed their heads in disappointment when the UN, after reportedly endorsing him, snubbed him for Lubbers, whose main strength, his backers contended, is that he knows the corporate boardrooms, admittedly an indispensable strength when one heads the UNHCR, an organization always in need of money for infinite supply of refugees and related problems.

Lubbers' critics nevertheless argued that his weaknesses is that he has a "velvet tongue", as the Dutch says, implying that his language is so indirect, so soothing that knowing what he means is difficult. For this, tyrants responsible for refugee production would be at home with him since he allegedly lacked the character to call a spade a spade. He is disappointing them. He has begun to call a spade a spade and only by doing so can we begin to see tangible solutions for this political cancer. Anything less is just treating the symptoms. The "velvet voice" may after all become a voice of hope.

Now however, in one his first press conferences, Lubbers is disappointing his critics. He is speaking a language so direct, his voice far from being "velvet." It is emerging that his is a voice needing reechoing.