- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

Sadako Ogata is a small woman whose power is vast.

During her 10 years as head of the world's largest refugee agency, she had to decide whether Haitians and others fleeing extreme poverty as well as military violence were economic migrants or refugees.

She had to decide if it was safe to send back home Bosnians, Cubans, Rwandans, Afghans and millions of other asylum seekers.

Mrs. Ogata's agency the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had the power to recommend that Pakistan or the United States protect people who entered their territories without documents and then asked for political asylum.

Her decisions could mean that tens of thousands of people would be granted the right to remain in a country of first asylum, sent to a third country or sent home if they could not prove they had "a credible fear of persecution" stemming from their race, religion or political beliefs under UNHCR rules.

Mrs. Ogata, the first Japanese to lead a major U.N. agency, was dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo before taking over UNHCR.

She comes from a family of distinguished public servants. Her father was a high-ranking diplomat; her grandfather, a foreign minister. Her great-grandfather, Tsuyoshi Inukai, was prime minister when he was assassinated by military firebrands in 1932, starting Japan's slide from political scandal and the Great Depression into militarism and war.

During a luncheon with a half-dozen journalists in Washington last week, she cited what she considers the successes of her term in office.

The wave of Vietnamese boat people and other Indochinese that began after 1975 finally ended, and refugee camps in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia emptied and closed as refugees went home or to resettlement countries.

Central America's refugees went home or resettled abroad as guerrilla wars wound down in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In Africa, 1 million Rwandan refugees returned home.

But new refugee crises are erupting. North Koreans flee poverty and repression for China and Russia, where they face a cold welcome. Thousands of Afghans fleeing internal conflict have been blocked from entering Pakistan, creating fears for their safety.

"My worst moment [in 10 years as high commissioner] was in Tingi Tingi," she recalled.

"Refugees fleeing from Western Zaire were attacking other refugees in camps, bringing in weapons. It was quite frightening.

"We flew in there in a plane that was, well, not quite up to standards.

"There was fighting and the refugees were very angry. They thought we'd abandoned them. That was the most acute point of being in a war zone."

"Conflict will continue," she predicted, "and there will be more refugees, but they will be different.

"People fleeing to neighboring countries will face more resistance."

She noted that the poor West African country of Guinea is coping with hundreds of thousands of refugees who are infiltrated by armed elements coming from Sierra Leone. The fear of instability has led the Guinea government to resist the influx of refugees.

She said the only way to resolve such issues would be "cross-border peacekeepers I know it won't happen, but it is worthwhile, not just in Guinea but in East and West Timor as well."

Another new issue in refugee management is whether fear of persecution over gender, sexual orientation or women's genital mutilation should be a basis for asylum. Mrs. Ogata said the UNHCR is "undertaking consultation with governments starting December 12th for one year" to consider these new categories.

"The big danger for the future is separatist movements how far can you demand autonomy without creating conflict?" she asked. "The world has not come up with a credible theory."

Other refugee problems include urbanization, in which rural people move to cities and face loss of family, livelihood, housing, security and access to resources.

She warned that an explosion of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Colombia may be added to the current level of more than 1 million because of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia aimed at suppressing drug production.

"Plan Colombia will create more IDPs we have brought it up with the State Department," she said.

She praised the United States for paying one-third of the UNHCR's nearly $1 billion annual budget, noting that Congress recently added $70 million to the administration's request for refugee assistance.

Refugee totals are down to 22 million this year from a peak during her term of 26 million.

Despite the rising world population and scramble for space and resources, she said, she hopes refugee numbers won't swell.

"The world cannot fail that much," she said.

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