Africana Plus

No18 October 1996.5


Poorest of the poor

Surely refugees are the poorest of the poor, numbering more than 23 million throughout the world. Nomads against their will, uprooted as a result of fighting in their respective homelands, they are dismissed as unimportant in the rising tide of passions. Civil war is mostly responsible for the terrible suffering of refugees.

Half-naked, they flee with all their worldly goods on top of their heads or in their arms: a plastic sheet, a rusted pot, a leaky bucket, a torn mat. These possessions give them a fleeting sense of security on their agonizing march to the misery of the camps.

There at least they will receive relief from international organizations, the panacea of governments which have completely washed their hands of them. In the camps, they will find food, lodgings, education, medical care and sanitary facilities. They will meet people who will help them rediscover meaning in their lives and put them in contact with the local population. For a while, they will be safe.

But what can they expect tomorrow? What kind of plans will they want to make, or be able to make, when the earth has been pulled out from under their feet?

According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the more than 23 million refugees in the world, 7,181,100 are in Africa; 5,773,500 in Asia; 6,056,600 in Europe; 130,900 in Latin America; 1,290,800 in North America; 50,400 in Oceania; and 2,280,700 in the former Soviet Union. To this must be added some 26 million displaced persons in internal exile in their own country. One out of every 115 people in the world have been forced to leave their homeland.

In Africa alone, there are close to 16 million refugees (external and internal): 4.5 million in the Sudan; 300,000 in Chad; over 1 million in Ethiopia; 825,000 in Angola; 2 million in Mozambique; approximately 500,000 in Liberia; 2 million in Somalia; 2 million in Rwanda and 500,000 in Uganda.

As an example, let us take the 220,000 Hutu refugees (Rwandan and Burundian) in the Uvira region of Zaire, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. For more than two years now, they have been receiving aid from international organizations (Oxfam, Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, etc.), from NGOs and from churches of every denomination, through the efforts of lay and religious missionaries. These modern-day Good Samaritans recognize the victims of political violence. The refugees are managing to survive thanks to the generosity of certain Western countries.

But there's no happy ending yet. Their hosts are starting to think they are a little too comfortable in their new home. The Banyamurenge, Tutsi from Rwanda who emigrated to Zaire some time ago, now would like to have full Zairian citizenship. The host country refuses. A conflict breaks out. Who gets the worst of it? The recent refugees in the Uvira camps, of course, who were fairly settled, and have now had to go back to wandering. Some 110,000 of them are already on the move again with what remains of their lives.

What have they done to God to deserve such a fate? Nothing at all. What have they done to anyone to deserve to be stripped of their home and possessions? Nothing at all. What shall we do for them, during this decade for the eradication of poverty? Let us hope that the answer will not be: nothing at all.

The UNHCR spent $1 billion on refugees in 1994. Canada contributed $25 million of this, which works out to $0.89 per person. That's something, but not much.

And when the prophets raise their voices on behalf of the poor, what is the reaction? They get editorialists telling them they don't know anything about economics. The October 19 edition of the Montreal daily The Gazette carried an editorial entitled "Bishops go too far". It reproaches the Canadian bishops for recommending more spending on several groups (of the underprivileged), including women, aboriginal people and refugees...Pierre Trudeau responded to a similar letter from the bishops in 1982 by calling them poor economists. In essence, the bishops were told to go back to their sacristies and stick to worrying about their churches and their Sunday collection.

How easy it is to silence the prophets: just accuse them of incompetence. In a world in which profitability and productivity are law, the bishop's appeal falls on deaf ears. The retort: Deficit reduction is the only solution.

Deficit reduction is logical. But logical for whom?
Who benefits from budget cuts, often made on the backs of the poor? And what kind of repercussions are these cuts likely to have in the final run? What has become of solidarity, of the social consensus, of sticking together?

If my foot strikes a rock, my hand cannot rejoice: my whole body suffers. If my arteries are blocked, my head and my arms have to go to bed too. No part of my body is perfectly independent and capable of living by itself. There are ties of interdependence which cannot be ignored.

The same is true of people and societies. We are all interdependent. We cannot be happy in isolation. A time will come when the misery of the forgotten, the rejected and the starving turns to despair and revolt; that is when we may see the overthrow of everything we have built without them, or even against them.

The laws of economics as they are taught at institutes of higher learning and championed by certain journalists are something we take very seriously indeed. When it comes to international relations, why don't we take just as seriously the law we have been given to love one another?

When love and trust are no longer the supreme law, then the whole body (i.e., the whole world) falls into a thousand pieces. Because when we fail to carry others in our hearts, then we almost always wind up with them on our backs.

Are we attentive to the cry of the poor? Or is it just a sound that we hear? Many people down through the ages have sought to silence the prophets, keep them from their mission of speaking out. They have never succeeded. There will always be prophets.

The Canadian bishops were only trying to be the voice of those without a voice. Their reward was a lecture on economics. Anyone, whether lay or bishop, atheist or believer, should be given a respectful hearing when they speak on behalf of the poor, and their words given careful consideration. When the poor cry out, men and women of compassion listen, and then search together for a solution.

There will always be objections, difficulties, insurmountable challenges. But what did our ancestors do when they were faced with a problem? They all pitched in together to solve it. In Quebec, in years gone by, each house had something called a "hobo's bench" out front. Tramps could sit down and rest on the bench, even sleep there. And they could always count on a bowl of soup, even in a family of 15 children. People used to say, If there's enough for 15, there's enough for 16. In those days, they didn't mind putting a little water in the soup to make it go around.

Today, we are worried that our soup won't taste good if we do that, or that we won't have enough for ourselves. If our fear gets the upper hand over our generosity, then it will be our turn to experience a kind of poverty: human poverty caused by lack of solidarity.

Then what do we suggest?
That men and women of action rise up to relieve the misery of refugees on the move. As long as there are rich that are too rich and poor that are too poor, there will be refugees. The whole world must face up to this.

It is not enough to criticize those who are trying to wake us up. National and international organizations need the goodwill not only of politicians, but also of each and every one of us who give them a mandate to act.

Speaking of the Hutu refugees in Zaire, Janet Lim of the UNHCR said: We are always pushing back the boundaries of what we can do in order to save more human lives. That's why we explore every possible solution. After all, what is more precious than life?

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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