The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appealed here yesterday for $96.4 million to assist 1.19 million refugees and former refugees in the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic.
The appeal is one of the largest launched by a UN agency in response to the African emergency, which affects 20 countries. Mr Poul Hartling, the UN High Commissioner, told a press conference that the lion’s share of the money – $73.9 million – will be spent on Sudan. About 250,000 Ethiopian refugees had arrived since last October, he said, and another 300,000 seemed likely to arrive before the middle of the year.
“They arrived with nothing in a place that has nothing,” he said, adding that there was an urgent need to get food to the Eastern Sudan before summer rains made the roads impassable.
Mr Hartling dismissed recent charges by Ethiopia’s ambassador in Geneva, Mr Kassa Kebede, that the UNHCR has shown bias towards Sudan in allocating emergency aid, and that aid to the refugees in the Sudan was sucking people out of Ethiopia assisting anti-government guerrillas, and diverting funds and publicity from the UN effort inside Ethiopia.
Mr Hartling dismissed the Ethiopian campaign as political. ‘We keep to a humanitarian non-political role. We shall help where people are in need.’
In addition to the Sudan, $8.9 million will go to 300,000 Ethiopians who have returned from Somalia, $7 million on 60,000 new refugees in Somalia and $6.6 million on 40,000 Chadians in the Central African Republic.
According to UN officials here, the UNHCR appeal will be “appended” to a wider UN appeal that is due to be launched at a pledging conference here, probably on February 26. Officials say the appeal, for 20 African countries, could be for as much as $1 billion.
Apart from its scope, UNHCR officials said the appeal was unusual in three ways. Firstly, they said, it includes $47.3 million for food, which is not normally handled directly by the UNHCR.
Secondly, the agency is making no attempt to distinguish between people fleeing from drought in Ethiopia, and those fleeing war – a distinction that Western governments usually insist on in responding to refugee appeals.
Thirdly, UNHCR officials agreed that it is almost unprecedented for the UNHCR to appeal on behalf of refugees in this case 300,000 – who have yet to arrive.
This seems likely to fuel Ethiopia’s suspicions that the refugee programme in the Sudan is being beefed up to the likely detriment of the relief effort inside Ethiopia itself.
UNHCR officials reply that the new appeal includes $8.9 million for 300,000 refugees returning from Somalia to Ethiopia, and that they will also receive UN food aid worth $19 million.
Given that these people have returned from territory that is claimed by Ethiopia, they qualify as displaced people and do not technically fall under the UNHCR mandate. Some Western diplomats here feel this makes the Ethiopian charge even more unreasonable.
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