By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The U.S. government's efforts to alleviate the plight of African refugees has the full attention of the Clinton administration and are in no way subordinate to efforts to aid refugees elsewhere in the world, says State Department official Alan Kreczko.
Kreczko, senior deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, was interviewed shortly after his official visit to Sierra Leone and Guinea last November. The purpose of the trip, he said, was "to support the peace process in Sierra Leone and get a first-hand look at the humanitarian situation."
Kreczko stressed that Sierra Leone has not received the attention it deserves from international donors nor from the world's press. But he insisted that the U.S. government has consistently pressed for humanitarian relief to the African nation and that "our efforts have not flagged in that regard."
According to Kreczko, the refugee bureau efforts support "the main pillars of U.S. foreign policy which are: promoting peace, maintaining regional stability, promoting sustainable development and relieving human suffering."
Regarding the claim by some observers that refugees in Sierra Leone were neglected in favor of those in Kosovo last year, Kreczko insisted that was not the case. "No," he said, "we did not divert any money from our [refugee bureau] accounts to Kosovo. We were able in fiscal year 1999 to keep the money we had allocated for Africa for Africa."
The U.S. government has been the single largest donor of humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone, he said, contributing some $159 million there since the beginning of its civil war in 1991. In fiscal year 1999, $50 million was provided for humanitarian assistance to Sierra Leone. In fiscal year 2000, the U.S. has pledged an initial contribution of $100 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) -- with $50 million of the money earmarked for its programs in Africa.
"I think the most important thing on the humanitarian side is not to call into question the generosity of the level of assistance to a particular place, but (rather) to make sure all refugees get their basic humanitarian needs addressed," Kreczko said. "We've tried to focus on that with a new program called the 'Up to Standards Initiative' that allows us to make additional contributions when we believe refugees are not getting sufficient attention."
When the U.N. World Food Program had a shortfall in funding for its food aid to West Africa recently, he said, the U.S. government "stepped in and gave additional cash contributions to their food program so that they could supplement their feeding programs for refugees." The United States, he said, now provides about 60 percent of all the food contributions to the region.
Recalling his visit to several refugee camps in Guinea, Kreczko said "Hundreds of thousands of refugees are still there having fled the violence in Sierra Leone. We got a first-hand look at what the Guineans are doing to help them." Guinea, he said, also is helping 100,000 Liberian refugees who fled from civil war in their country.
Kreczko said that Sierra Leonean refugees he spoke to in the Guinea camps fully support the peace accord that was brokered in Lome, Togo, last spring by U.S. Special Envoy Jesse Jackson Jr. "They were terrified at the prospect of the peace not happening and the rebels coming back into Freetown like they did last January when they killed and mutilated thousands of residents," he said.
While "African nations generally have been very cooperative about accommodating refugees," he said, Guinea "has been in the forefront of that effort. They are doing a tremendous job considering their limited resources." There is no question, he said, that the refugee crisis in West Africa is causing "economic hardships" in Guinea -- nor that "our bureau as well as U.N. agencies remain committed to helping them mitigate that impact."
"I can't stress enough how great Guinea has been in helping its neighbors," Kreczko said. "Not everyone is as obliging. For example, in the recent Kosovo crisis, Macedonia initially closed its border to Kosovar refugees and we had to work with them to reopen it, which they did."
Kreczko said he met with Guinea's Foreign Minister Zainoul Sanoussy, who "encouraged us to go out and gauge the refugees' plight" directly. He also had "several requests, including wanting U.N. agencies to do more local buying of relief supplies where it made sense, which they said they would do. He also asked donors for assistance with Guinea's police forces because the presence of the refugees has put a strain on them. We're working with the UNHCR , which has promised some communications equipment, to meet this need."
The Guinean government, he stressed, is very worried about the environmental impact of the refugees and "there is a concern that they have contributed to deforestation." He said the U.S. Agency for International Development is "running some environmental projects" there to help out.
Kreczko said while in Sierra Leone he met with former rebel leaders Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma, as well as with President Kabbah and other government officials.
Sierra Leone's government, Kreczko said, is "doing a very good job trying to address the needs of people in the areas under its control. There (also) are a lot of U. N. agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) there doing great work; and we (the bureau) look forward to making a contribution to the integration of refugees, victims of violence and former combatants into society once peace takes hold."
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)