Volatile western Côte d’Ivoire may not seem a likely place to seek refuge, but for nearly 20 years it has hosted tens of thousands of Liberian refugees who fled across the border during civil wars (1989-96 and 1999-2003) in their country.
In July 2012 a cessation clause came into force, stripping the remaining Liberians of their refugee status as the UN declared that it has been six years since the conflict ended, and Liberia has undergone a sustained period of peace. Refugees now face a choice between returning home or integrating fully into Ivoirian society.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will provide some assistance in both cases. It is helping to repatriate refugees, providing them with small cash sums to restart their lives, and it will try to give livelihood training and assistance in obtaining the relevant documents to those who wish to remain in Côte d’Ivoire.
But many of the refugees find neither option inviting. Residents of the decade-old “transit” centre in Tabou, in the Bas-Sassandra region of Côte d’Ivoire, speak of lingering tensions in Liberia. They point to the presence of a large UN peacekeeping mission as a mark of continued instability in Liberia, and tell horror stories of the fate that awaited some of their peers who tried to return home.
As it starts raining, a man standing at the entrance to his tattered tent on the grey tarmac wasteland of the camp tells IRIN that a woman he used to know returned to Liberia and was burned to death inside her home.
It is also disconcerting for many of the refugees that the blanket amnesty given after the conflict, means some of the leading perpetrators roam free and even hold powerful positions in the government.
Some refugees have been away for over 20 years and there is no certainty that their former homes will still be vacant. Land tenure is complicated in Liberia, and many refugees simply have no home to return to.
Yet integrating into Ivoirian society is equally complicated. There are strong ties between the Krahn ethnic group in eastern Liberia and the Guéré in western Côte d’Ivoire.
Since their arrival, some refugees have been targeted and marginalized by some of the locals, who see them as having brought conflict to Côte d’Ivoire - a perception strengthened by widespread allegations that Liberian mercenaries were involved in the post-election violence and recent attacks in Côte d’Ivoire.
Tensions over land rights and the ethnicization of politics by successive Ivoirian regimes have also led to the emergence of the notion of `Ivoirité’ (Ivoirian-born) and fostered a climate of xenophobia.
Before the recent conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, some Liberians were told: “When war comes, you will be our soup,” said Ezekiel, leader of the Tabou Liberian Refugee Committee. Liberians were among the many perceived outsiders who were targeted in the 2010 violence in western Côte d’Ivoire.