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Europe: Red Cross/Red Crescent Plan Aid For Continent In Upheaval

Prague, 20 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Representatives of 52 European Red Cross and Moslem Red Crescent Societies met in Copenhagen this week to assess future humanitarian activity in Europe -- a continent the Societies say is threatened by mounting poverty, conflict, ethnic tension, urban violence and health problems in the post-cold war era.

The Conference, which the societies labeled as "Europe in Upheaval," marks the first time since the emergence of new states in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union that Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from so many countries gathered to discuss the future of humanitarian action in Europe.

Albania, dealing with anarchy and bloodshed at home following the collapse of a government-backed investment scheme, was noticeably absent in Copenhagen.

Opening the conference, the Secretary-General of the Danish Red Cross and Conference Chairman, Joergen Poulsen, said society in general tends to forget that there is another Europe that lives in a completely different world. Poulsen said this "other Europe" has suffered a major breakdown since the collapse of the Iron Curtain. As an example, he notes that over 50 million people in Russia and another 40 million in former Soviet countries are living below the poverty line.

In the health area, Poulsen said the most shocking figures are in the dramatic decline in life expectancy in Russia. From 1989 to 1994, average life expectancy fell from 64 to about 54 years of age for Russian men. Women's life expectancy fell by three years in the same period. Moreover, the societies are struggling to deal with the re-appearance of old illnesses and disease long thought eradicated.

Poulsen cited Bulgaria as a prime example of the problems raised by economies in rapid decline and he said environmental problems are creating a whole new breed of ecological migrants in Europe.

Still, Poulsen said he was "optimistic" that by creating partnerships, Western and Eastern Europe could be welded together.

"A huge task lies ahead in holding these societies together," he said. But, he also said, it would be "terribly dangerous" not to help these countries overcome their problems and enable them to become more democratic.

The Societies say Western Europe is also struck by increasing social problems. More and more people are left homeless and the unemployment rate is growing in several countries. Germany today, according to the Red Cross-Red Crescent, has as many unemployed as in the 1930's.

Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian Foreign Minister and the United Nations mediator in former Yugoslavia, warns that more homeless people and refugees are expected on Europe's streets.

The final day of the conference saw the adoption of a declaration for "Action and Advocacy." In it, the Societies pledge to be a key force at the local and international level in promoting positive change in the situation of Europe's most vulnerable.

Jon Valfells of the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies told RFE/RL one of the chief items on the agenda is dealing with what he called "the looming health crisis" in Central and Eastern Europe.

Valfells told RFE/RL that the highlight of the conference was the signing of 103 individual cooperation agreements between individual Societies. For example, according to Valfells, the Turkish Red Crescent will soon advise the Belgian Red Cross on how best to assist its ethnic Turkish population. Meanwhile, he said other Western European Societies will teach the Central Asian nations how to raise funds locally in order to implement their programs.

Valfells stressed that the Societies aim to focus more on the exchange of experience and ideas, rather than just "Throwing money at a problem." Still, he said fund-raising does play a part. Just this week, the International Red Cross-Red Crescent launched an appeal for 15 million Swiss Francs for Albania, which is dealing with an impending food shortage. Valfells said the Society was currently stock-piling food at the Albanian border and hoped to deliver it in the next two days.

This week's meeting in Copenhagen was hosted by the Danish Red Cross, along with national societies in the rest of the Nordic region.