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Refugees from Togo still trickling across the border

[Benin] Young boys, Togolese refugees living on the camps in Come, Benin in June 2005. These boys fled Togo on their own or were seperated from their families en route.
Young Togolese refugees in a camp in Benin (Parfait Kouassi)

Dozens of frightened refugees are continuing to flee Togo every day into Benin, more than two months after political violence triggered by a disputed presidential election suddenly drove tens of thousands into exile, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Between 20 and 60 Togolese refugees were still registering for asylum daily at the main Hillacondji border crossing, UNHCR officials told IRIN on Tuesday.

Most were young people afraid of being abducted or arrested at night, they added.

In the UNHCR’s Lokossa camp at Agame, 41-year-old traditional healer Benjamin Ahou, said he fled his home in the Lome suburb of Be Aklassou last week, fearing arrest.

He said the police appeared to think he had used witchcraft to protect opposition supporters.

"The week before I left the country my wife told me that suspicious people had come to the house while I was out," Ahou told IRIN.

"I was so scared that I took the family to stay at my parents-in-law in our village. When I returned home on Saturday, the house had been broken into. It was then that I realised I was on a black list, so I fled to Benin to seek asylum.”

Life was still difficult in the capital Lome, Ahou said. “People are under surveillance. If you go out at night for one reason or another you can be abducted or hacked or beaten to death.”

Climate of fear continues

Despite pledges of help and safe return from the new government of President Faure Gnassingbe, only a handful of the 38,000 people who fled to Benin and Ghana over the last 10 weeks have actually gone home.

Like Ahou, many other recently arrived refugees at UNHCR camps in Benin told IRIN that security forces and shadowy militiamen were still hunting down suspected opponents of President Gnassingbe.

The 39-year-old graduate of business schools in France and the United States was elected on 24 April to succeed to his late father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, a military man who ruled Togo for 38 years.

But the poll was marred by opposition charges of ballot rigging and unleashed a wave of political violence.

One Togolese human rights organisation close to the opposition alleged that almost 800 people died as angry opposition supporters took to the streets and the security forces hunted them down.

Although calm has returned, the climate of fear continues.

UNHCR officials said very few of the refugees had returned home because they feared reprisals.

UNHCR said in a statement that over 3,000 new refugees fled to Benin and Ghana in June alone.

That brought the total number of registered Togolese refugees to 38,942. There are now 23,221 in Benin and more than 15,000 in Ghana.

The UNHCR says 62 percent of them are living with family or friends. The rest are in camps. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) this week appealed for almost US $1 million to fund education, sanitation and medical care over the next 18 months for 8,000 Togolese children living with Ghanaian families.

New government urges refugees to come home

The refugees' return is a central plank of the platform adopted last weekend by newly appointed Prime Minister Edem Kodjo.

“The government will tackle how to resolve the difficult issue of the refugees,” Kodjo said on 2 July as he presented his government's programme to parliament.

He also promised to bring in new laws and policies “to help the Togolese to transcend the past and overcome their recriminations in order to recreate harmony and a common destiny.”

In order to promote national reconciliation, Kodjo said he aimed to close the deep gap of mistrust between the Togolese people and the army, which has been tightly controlled by the Eyadema clan for several decades.

But the prime minister's plea to the refugees to come home fell on deaf ears among the 8,000 Togolese living in refugee camps at Agame and Come in southwestern Benin.

“We heard on the radio that Prime Minister Edem Kodjo wanted to negotiate the repatriation of refugees, but I can’t go home, I’m a wanted man,” said Denis Amouzou, a 30-year-old salesman.

Kodjovi Sipokpé, 26, a printer from the Lome district of Hedjranahoue, said he was once a personal bodyguard of exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio. “I can’t even go near the border, let alone cross it,” he said.

Blandine Wakesso, a 20-year-old high school pupil, said she had been an opposition delegate at a polling station. But the day after, she helped build barricades and threw stones at the police when the opposition rose up against the allegedly rigged election result.

“With this government in place I can’t return to Togo. Anyway we want change,” she said.

Officials close to Gnassingbe have accused many of the refugees of fleeing to the camps for free food handouts or a rare chance to seek asylum and a more comfortable life in the United States or Europe.

Fatima Issifou, the UNHCR representative at Agame refugee camp, said that many young of the young men who fled Togo after battling troops in the streets had indeed tried to convince UNHCR to send them to new homes in the West.

“Not a day goes past without a group of youngsters coming to ask if the UNHCR can help them join a relative or a friend in Europe,” she said.

But at the French, German and US consulates in the Benin capital Cotonou, officials said there had been no noticeable increase in visa requests during recent weeks.

Many of the refugees believe that after four decades of authoritarian rule by Eyadema senior, there is little prospect of life improving under his army-backed son.

“We have lived badly all our lives and now I have sacrificed my future. The best thing is to go seek a new life elsewhere,” said Kuami Affagnon, a 25-year-old who had dropped by the UNHCR office to ask help to join his brother in Italy.


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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