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Liberian refugees' dilemma

Felicia Chieh has spent more than half her life in Cote d'Ivoire, mostly in the western town of Guiglo. She was nine when she arrived there from neighbouring Liberia. Now, aged 21 with a four-month-old baby, she is in a dilemma, like many of her compatriots in Cote d'Ivoire.

A 19 September mutiny that turned into a rebellion, splitting the country into a rebel-held northern zone and the government-controlled south, has spelt doom for Felicia, her son Richman and thousands of other Liberian refugees.

"I'm afraid of going back home because of war and now there is war here also," she told IRIN at a transit centre for refugees run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Abidjan. "I would prefer to be moved to another country because I'm scared."

Chieh was among the 150 refugees living in the transit centre who were eager to hear some good news from Assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane when he visited the camp on 14 December. But their own news was far from good.

Cote d'Ivoire had become their home away from home but when the mutiny broke out, most of theirdwellings in poor, informal neighbourhoods were razed by security forces. The authorities said the measure was necessary because rebels had been hiding in shantytowns.

In the process many lost their valuables, including their identity cards. Some said they had been attacked in the early days of the uprising by Ivorians who suspected them of collaborating with the insurgents. Immigrants from other countries were not spared either.

"For us Liberians, home is not the best option and yet we can't live here because there is war and life is almost at a standstill," Sarah Dia, a mother of five, told IRIN.

"But I think I just want to go back home because there is no hope," she said, adding that since she lost her identity card in the demolitions, she could not leave the transit centre. "I would be arrested because I have no identity card," she explained.

The acting Head of UNHCR office in Abidjan, Panos Moumtzis, told the refugees that the agency had started registering those who had lost their papers with the idea of having them provided with identification documents or of having the temporary ones regularised.

Dia's five children, aged between 17 years and 5 months, live with her at the centre. She has lived in Abidjan for seven years and ran a small business before the conflict. Now she has no home, no source of income and, moreover, her father died on 27 November at the transit centre.

The centre, considered a temporary site, hosts refugees from five countries - Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and Sudan. The house was originally used by IOM as a transit centre for refugees awaiting resettlement. Now its inmates are refugees displaced by the Ivorian crisis.

According to the centre's supervisor, Norah Johnny, UNHCR gives money to IOM which in turn purchases food that the refugees take turns to cook.

During Morjane's visit the refugees, along with their counterparts in six other transit centres in Abidjan, presented him with a petition in which they sought relocation to another country or resettlement, Johnny told IRIN. There are 1,096 refugees in the seven centres.

Morjane, whose visit also took him to Liberia, Ghana and Togo, assured the refugees that UNHCR would look into the petition seriously. He said that at his meetings with Ivorian government authorities they had assured UNHCR that registered refugees would continue to enjoy the hospitality that they had before the crisis.

"Don't fear and don't think that we'll let you down," Morjane reassured the refugees. He said the agency would assist those who voluntarily asked to be transported back home. "We will not force anybody - we will not push any body to go back to their country. This is UNHCR's policy," he said. Some 27 Liberian refugees were repatriated on that Saturday.

Morjane stressed that the agency regarded protection - including the safety of refugees - as a great priority, as well as material support.

However, he said: "Please keep out of any camp of political engagements or commitment in this country [...] It is important to keep totally neutral."

Fighting erupted in the western part of Cote d'Ivoire on 28 November with the emergence of two new rebel groups, the Movement for Peace and Justice (MPJ) and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO), which captured about five towns in the west. The government retook at least two, and has tried to recapture others.

According to UNHCR, about 45,000 refugees lived in the Zone d'accueil des refugies (ZAR - Refugee hosting zone), an area along Cote d'Ivoire's border with Liberia that includes many of the towns captured by the rebels. The majority of them were Liberians.

In a statement on 16 December, UNHCR said sources in southern Cote d'Ivoire had reported large population movements over the weekend of 14-15 December around the coastal town of Taboufollowing rumours of impending attacks. Groups of people were seen heading towards the Liberian border at Prollo, some 28 km west of Tabou.

It expressed concern at reports that loyalist forces had attached explosives to the Prollo bridge, near the Liberian border.

"This could pose a grave danger for refugees and others using the bridge," it noted. Last week, Ivorian troops detonated hand grenades wired to a UNHCR ferry in Prollo, saying they wanted to prevent rebels from crossing in and out of Liberia, the agency added.

"One Liberian arrived in Abidjan from Tabou yesterday with his two children after fleeing because he feared for their safety," it quoted Anne Dolan, head of UNHCR's Tabou office, as saying.

"He said he had to pay his way through checkpoints and was detained twice because he could not pay," Dolan said. "He was released later, after Ivorians helped him pay for his passage. The journey took him three days by bus - three times the usual travel time from Tabou to Abidjan."

Other refugees reaching Abidjan said some were heading for Ghana on commercial buses, UNHCR said.

Humanitarian actors have been bracing themselves for major population displacements but one of their main concerns is funding.

Last month the United States Committee for Refugees (USCR)said UNHCR had a funding shortfall of nearly US $200 million and expected to end the year some $170 million short of the $1.04 billion needed to address basic refugee needs. Dozens of private international humanitarian
organisations engaged in refugee relief work were confronting similar funding problems, it added.

Documenting more than 60 examples from around the world, based on reporting by relief agencies, it described the impact of the crisis and assistance cutbacks on the day-to-day lives of refugees.

Of the 60 examples, 42 are from African countries: some of these programmes are being implemented with cutbacks while others have been cancelled.

The areas they cover include reintegration, shelter, food, repatriation, resettlement, training such as in literacy, human rights, education, general aid and protection, self-sufficiency, relief deliveries, refugee registration, health, housing, water and sanitation.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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