Hartsdale resident helps protect 19 million refugees
Insurgents have planted land mines along the road from the Moyo refugee camp in Uganda to southern Sudan, where many of the camp's residents hope to return to their villages.
So the armed convoy carrying Judy Cheng-Hopkins, the U.N.'s new assistant high commissioner for refugees, makes a detour over rougher terrain, more than doubling the time of the 20-mile trip.
Since her appointment in mid-February, Cheng-Hopkins, a Hartsdale resident who oversees the agency's efforts to protect 19.2 million people uprooted from their homes, has traveled to Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Chad.
"The borders are very fragile and dangerous," said Cheng-Hopkins. "People who are fleeing often walk for days with no belongings. They are tired, sick, angry and under tremendous stress. Our people set up tent communities of more than 20,000, literally out of desert (where no haven had existed), in several days."
As the head of operations for an agency with a staff of 6,540 in 116 countries, Cheng-Hopkins' work extends from resettling refugees, to negotiating for land with prime ministers of host nations, to persuading government, corporate and private donors to help fund the organization, which has a $1 billion annual budget.
During her nearly 30-year career with the United Nations, Cheng-Hopkins has observed firsthand the plight of the world's most vulnerable populations.
She has met with girls in rehabilitation centers who escaped after being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves. She has talked with boys dragooned into serving as child soldiers after being forced to kill their parents to toughen them.
Resettling refugees who have fled across national borders is a logistical challenge. Everything from family shelters to latrines, clinics, schools, wells and other infrastructure needs to be set up and then shielded from marauding militias in often hostile environments, she said.
Host countries facing poverty themselves are increasingly reluctant to take refugees.
To reduce jealousy toward the newcomers, the agency offers aid - such as medical treatment at its clinics - to the poor citizens of a host country, she said.
"We have to create a balance so the local people get something, or they will chase us out," she said.
Besides caring for people who have fled their countries outright, her agency helps those who have been uprooted by violence but who remain within their own countries, as well as people without a state, especially after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The commission last year assumed responsibility for the protection of 660,000 of the 1.8 million displaced people in the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan. In Colombia, government estimates put the number of displaced people at 2 million. Stateless people under the agency's mandate are estimated at more than 2 million.
But as those numbers grow, funding has fallen sharply. The refugee agency is tens of millions of dollars in the red. To make matters worse, the World Food Programme, the U.N. agency that Cheng-Hopkins used to work for and that provides food to the refugees, announced April 28 that lack of money will force it to cut daily rations across Sudan in half from the minimum daily food requirement of 2,100 calories per person to 1,050 calories.
There is an encouraging trend, however, Cheng-Hopkins said.
"Wars do end. Stability does come. People see that it is worthwhile to try to go back home," she said.
Supporting her optimism, the commission reports the number of people to flee persecution and seek safety in neighboring states fell 4 percent in 2004 to 9.2 million, the lowest total in almost a quarter century. More than 2 million Afghan refugees went home voluntarily from Pakistan in the last year alone, many after more than 20 years in exile.
Von: 8.5.2006 By SUSAN ELAN, www.thejournalnews.com