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HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Sudan offers open doors -- but few jobs

They live in crumbling mud-wall hut on the edge of the city. Four or five refugee families often squeeze into a single shelter. Children huddle on narrow cots or play outside in the dust. Women plod through household chores. The men are away fighting with liberation groups in neighboring Ethiopia, or working . . . or looking for work.

"The real problem is to provide these people with enough work to make them sefl-fufficient and give them the feeling that they are doing something useful."

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That comment, from a representative of the Save the Children Fund, sums up the way Sudan has gone about absorbing and resettling the flood of refugees who have poured in from neighboring countries.

The Sudanese approach stands in sharp contrast to that of most other "first asylum" nations. Usually such nations are eager to move the refugees onward as fast as possible. They are reluctant to accept responsibility for finding them permanent new homes.

But Sudan maintains one of the most advanced and liberal asylum policies in the world. Nearly 500,000 refugees are huddled in the country, most of them from Ethiopia. Others come from Uganda, Zaire, and Chad.

"We have always accepted refugees," says refugee commissioner Abdul Rahman Bashir."We have never expelled a single refugee. This country, a poor country, is doing its utmost to help the refugees and cope with their difficulties. But the problem is beyond Sudan's capabilities.

An arid agricultural nation, Sudan has been absorbing multitudes of refugees for the past 15 years.It has enough problems supporting its own 17 million citizens, let alone the newcomers. The country's gross national product per capita comes out to a meager $270 a year, one of the world's lowert.

Sudan's dilemma "is typical of many African countries now harboring refugees or drought victims," says a UNHCR official. "It can ill-afford to absorb so many people on its own. International assistance is indispensable."

One camp, at Umgulya, roughly seven hours hard drive from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, holds some 6,000 refugees. Many of them fled Tigre Province in Ethiopia in 1976. As part of the government's rural settlement program, families receive the equivalent of two acres of land for planting millet.

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Next year they will receive an additional two acres. The refugees, who live in conical reed huts, are also being encouraged to undertake other activities to raise money. The Sudanese Council of Churches is helping women produce woven handicrafts for sale abroad, while the men seeks seasonal agricultural works. Some refugees have opened small shopping stalls in the settlement to sell soft drinks and basic items.

But one can't expect business to start thriving until money starts coming in from the outside," says a relief official.

Last June, Sudan sponsored a three-day conference in Khartoum to draw attention to what the UNHCR considers a critical refugee situation. But the government of President Jaafar Nimeiry came away disappointed. Representatives from 27 governments and numerous agencies and volunteer organizations pledged less than half the $50 million Sudan needs to operate its refugees programs.

While lauding its humanitarian practices, some relief officials feel nonetheless that the government lacks a coherent refugee policy. Sudanese officials counter that it is being discriminated against because of the nature of its refugee problems, not its programs.

"Our situation is definitely not as sensational as the 'boat people' in Indo-China or the refugees in Somalia," Vice-President Abel Alier told the Monitor. "Although our refugees fail to make the headlines, we are faced with an extremely serious problem. Our support programs, despite UNHCR assistance, have suffered."

In the wake of the governmental criticism, however, the Khartoum administration appears to have developed a more promising policy than many of the other refugee-bloated countries visited by this reporter.

Thailand, whose programs have attracted the lion's share of refugee aid, has no policy to speak of other than pressuring the West to absorb its homeless by threatening to turn back asylum seekers. The same goes for Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Unlike these countries, Sudan is at least trying to resettle them locally -- even though it has the space but not the economy to do so.

Urban refugees loom as one of the most serious of Sudan's problems. Many of them have settled in Khartoum, Port Sudan, and Kassala, stirring social and economic unrest. Less than one-fifth of the country's refugees will be resettled by the end of the year.

"Most refugees settle spontaneously in towns, where they have to share medical facilities, education, water supplies, food, and public transport with the local people," says Dr. Bashir. "In Sudan these services are not even enough for our own nationals."

Khartoum in particular has been strained by the influx of some 70,000 refugees, primarily Eritreans. Many of them are seeking asylum in Western Europe and North America.

Streets literally teem with refugees. They live in overcrowded, squalid conditions. Less than 10 percent have jobs. Crime has risen, and the inflation rate clips along at 50 percent. Refugees compete with locals for employment and housing, fanning tensions.

The government is trying to establish more settlements to get the refugees out of cities. To accomodate more urban-oriented dweller, for instance, several UN-assisted settlements have been constructed near populated areas. Vocational training, employment, and other resettlement services have been set up in the main towns. The UNHCR is also sponsoring a $1.5 million scholarship fund for the 1980-81 year.

But the Sudanese authorities' main goal is to integrate the bulk of the refugees into the local economy by creating more agricultural and wage-earning settlements. Agricultural encampments like Umgulya provide refugees with small land plots and encourage them to work as seasonal laborers. At other settlements, refugees earn their own way by helping out on highly developed farm projects.

Nest: Refugees in Europe

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