UN agencies and NGOs are urging the Côte d’Ivoire government to reconsider its planned shutdown of sites for displaced people in the west in a bid to force them to return home.
Some 18,455 internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain in 36 sites in the west, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates, while a further 169,486 are living in Côte d’Ivoire with host families. Teams are currently out verifying the latest numbers.
The government is threatening to close IDP sites in Duékoué by mid-November, according to Mamadou Traoré, director at the Ministry of Solidarity. But he has not said where people who have lost their houses would return to.
“Pressure is starting to be put on the displaced [to move], and we say that is not acceptable,” said Fabrice Bah, an IDP at the Catholic mission in Duékoué. “They promised us that they would at least rebuild our destroyed houses before moving us on.”
Returns can only work if the government speeds up rebuilding, said Bernadette Kouamé, UNHCR communications head.
The government has prioritized rebuilding 7,800 of the 13,000 houses that are estimated to have been destroyed in the western regions of Moyen Cavally and 18 Montagnes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But progress has been slow, say aid agencies. Meanwhile, NGO plans extend to rebuilding just 2,000 houses, according to OCHA.
However, it is not only destroyed infrastructure, but also lingering fear that is stopping people from returning, say displaced people and aid agencies. Many are too frightened, fearing reprisal attacks, inter-community violence, as well as the Forces Republicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI).
“If they force us to leave, we’ll leave,” said Bah, who noted living conditions in displaced sites were very difficult. “But we would rather seek refuge in Liberia [than return home] because the current situation does not bode well for us building good relationships with armed men,” he said.
The government must recognize the legitimacy of these fears, said Oxfam spokesperson Gaelle Bausson.
On 26 October, NGOs and UN agency members of a newly formed returns working group met the government’s National Committee for the Coordination of Humanitarian Action (CNCAH) to discuss a more realistic returns strategy and timetable. The group has stressed the need to keep some IDP sites open; to develop a clearer picture of why some IDPs are so reluctant to return; and to find more viable resettlement solutions for some IDPs, according to OCHA.
When planning imminent returns the government should start with those who want to go home, said Bausson. Those who are ready and able to return or resettle, should be given a basic help package, including transport fees, food and non-food items, some seeds to plant, and basic water and hygiene equipment, she added.
“The important point is that there should be no evictions and no incentives to return,” she said.
Many thousand Ivoirians fled to Liberia during the post-election conflict, but some are beginning to return: UNHCR has reportedly assisted a first group to return to a transit centre in Toulépleu in Côte d' Ivoire. Most were heading for Bloléquine, Toulépleu, Duékoué and Guiglo (all in the west), and said they had returned because of jobs and schools, or to participate in December elections.
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