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World: Analysis From Washington -- Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many governments are reducing their support for international refugee relief because there is no headline-grabbing case to mobilize support for such aid.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said this week that the major donor countries are now giving only about 80 percent of what his agency had hoped for. He said that the refugee situation in many parts of the world is as bad or worse as it has ever been "but it just doesn't get the attention that the high-profile emergencies [of the past] did."

And because of that, the major donor governments are under less pressure from their own citizens to provide the kind of aid they did in the past. Indeed, Redmond acknowledged, these donor states are suffering from a kind of "refugee fatigue," especially since few of the 22 million refugees the UN is responsible for are likely to return home anytime soon.

But as Redmond notes, the roughly $200 million shortfall in the budget of the UN agency means that it will have to cut back, and the most likely victims of such reductions are the refugees who can afford it least.

A particularly serious refugee crisis is emerging in South Asia as a result of the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. The three countries in that region -- Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan -- now must deal with some four million refugees. The UN has asked the international community to come up with $226 million to try to ward off famine. But so far, the donor countries have pledged only about 20 percent of that amount.

In an effort to head off a disaster there and elsewhere, Ruud Lubbers, who serves as the international high commissioner for refugees, visited Paris last week to complain about the French contribution to his agency. Lubbers told French President Jacques Chirac that France's contribution of $8 million last year was less than half of the agency's payments to French employees. "For every franc that we receive from France," Lubbers said, "we spend two on French people" rather than on refugees.

Chirac said he was fully aware of the situation, but in the absence of a media-generated public outcry, there is little that he or other leaders of donor countries is likely to do. And that pattern in turn highlights three fundamental realities about the new international system.

First, governments that must respond to their own people frequently are responding to what their own citizens see on television. UN spokesman Shashi Tharoor has observed that television often serves as the sixteenth member of the UN Security Council. But the electronic media also affect international affairs indirectly by shaping the way in which people see the world. And in such cases, the absence of coverage may be as important as what is in fact shown.

Second, electronic news outlets are far more disposed to report on specific crises rather than chronic problems. A new refugee flow threatening Europe, for example, will be given extensive coverage, but the far larger refugee populations already in camps in Asia and Africa are seldom the subject of reports. In a media-driven political environment, such differences in coverage lead to differences in approach.

And third, as UN officials themselves admit, there is an increasing propensity on the part of European and other Western governments to feel that they have done enough and that other countries and the private sector should now pick up more of the burden. These governments note that more than 90 percent of the UN refugee budget comes from just ten countries and more than a third comes from the United States alone.

High Commissioner Lubbers is trying to change that, appealing to other governments and to private sector sources of funding. But in the short term at least, the decision of governments to cut back on refugee assistance means that those who are not seen will continue to suffer.

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