UNHCR briefing notes: Liberia, Pakistan, Kakuma camp - Kenya
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today expressed grave concern over the situation in Liberia, reiterating his call for an immediate end to hostilities and for deployment of an international peacekeeping force to fill the current security vacuum in the war-ravaged nation.
In addition to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocent Liberians, the High Commissioner noted that UNHCR has little information on the fate of some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living in camps around Monrovia. Tens of thousands of displaced people have converged on Monrovia, where remaining aid agency staff have struggled to provide assistance amid reports of shelling and gunfire within the city. Mr. Lubbers is also extremely worried about UNHCR's national staff in Monrovia. Sketchy reports from the capital indicate that up to 1,000 refugees and internally displaced people have crowded in and around the UNHCR compound in the city.
During a visit last month to Liberia and four other West African states, the High Commissioner urged the warring parties to cooperate with the International Contact Group's efforts toward a ceasefire and called for the deployment of an international force to keep the peace. He also called on Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down, noting that Liberia had for years been at the epicenter of the region's displacement problems. Every country the High Commissioner visited - - Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - - has felt the effects of Liberia's long and dangerous disintegration. Of the more than half a million refugees scattered across the region, some 300,000 are from Liberia. And more are leaving every day in a desperate search for survival and safety.
Fighting has affected at least 11 of Liberia's 15 counties. Awash with weapons, the law of the gun prevails and innocent civilians are the victims. Even before the latest fighting, nearly half of the country's 2.7 million people were displaced or in danger of displacement, threatening stability in neighboring states such as still-fragile Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, once a pillar of prosperity in West Africa but now dealing with its own insecurity - - particularly in the west along the border with Liberia. Our office in Abidjan has warned that the deteriorating situation in Liberia could again lead to a massive influx of refugees into Cote d'Ivoire, where some 27,000 Liberians have arrived in the past month alone. We are particularly concerned over the continuing animosity toward Liberian refugees among the Ivorian population. UNHCR recently launched an information campaign aimed at trying to reduce the negative public sentiment.
The High Commissioner was stunned when several of Monrovia's remaining humanitarian workers - not the sort of people who normally favor military intervention - told him they favored deployment of peacekeepers to Liberia. They saw no other way to stop the killing and the misery. A month later - - even though there have been increasing calls for such a force - - there is still no firm sign of any deployment. The High Commissioner believes that whether the force is in the form of an expanded UNAMSIL mandate from neighboring Sierra Leone, under the leadership of a UN Security Council member state or through some other arrangement, something needs to be done now to stop the killing and end the suffering of Liberia's people.
UNHCR expects to start clearing a controversial, makeshift refugee encampment just inside the Pakistan border on Monday, moving more than 500 Afghans back to Afghanistan in the first stage of a plan that will relocate all 19,605 residents over the next weeks.
The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the UN refugee agency agreed a month ago to close the "Waiting Area," a zone where Afghans fleeing the war against the Taliban were stranded when Pakistan banned the entry of additional refugees in February 2002.
Following the decision to close the area, which was considered insecure and was not a recognised refugee camp where UNHCR could provide full assistance, nearly all of the residents have signed up for the upcoming relocation convoys. The Afghans had a choice of returning to their homes in Afghanistan, transferring to the existing refugee camp of Mohammad Kheil inside Pakistan or moving to a new settlement for internally displaced Afghans at Zhare Dasht, near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. With less than 300 families still waiting to register, more than 59 percent of the residents in the Waiting Area site have asked to move to Zhare Dasht, which was opened last year. Another 40 percent chose Mohammad Kheil, a camp now holding 37,000 refugees that was opened for those fleeing the 2001 war in Afghanistan. Only about 20 families asked for UNHCR assistance to return to their home communities.
UNHCR, in co-ordination with the governments, set a 15 July deadline for closing the camp, although assistance for those registered to leave will continue until the relocation is complete. Initially, there will be movements to Zhare Dasht and Mohammad Kheil on alternate days in trucks hired by UNHCR. About 200 families will relocate to Mohammad Kheil on Tuesday.
The Waiting Area had always been considered unsuitable for a refugee camp. Located right on the border, it was on a smuggling route and the lack of security was underlined in the past month when the bodies of 22 fighters killed in a nearby battle with Afghan government troops were dumped in the centre of the refugee settlement, frightening the camp's residents. The decision to close the area was taken at the first meeting of the Tripartite Commission, a body set up under an agreement by Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR which is to set policy on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees until 2005.
3) HIGH COMMISSIONER'S FORUM
Today, the High Commissioner is hosting the first meeting of a special forum devoted to his Convention Plus initiative. The forum includes a wide range of interested states, as well as other international agencies and NGOs.
It is the next important step following the exhaustive two-year Global Consultations process, and the keynote Agenda for Protection that was produced at the end of the first phase of that process last summer.
As the name suggests, the Convention Plus initiative is attempting to build on the existing framework of the 1951 refugee Convention. At one point, various siren voices were saying that the 1951 Convention was out of date. It isn't - and the fact that it isn't was reaffirmed at the Ministerial level by around 150 states during the Global Consultations process.
Essentially, Convention Plus is an effort to produce a more structured approach to finding lasting solutions to refugee situations, with a strong focus on more systematic burden-sharing. A more dynamic approach to solving refugee crises, both new ones and long-standing ones, will have an obvious benefit for all concerned - first and foremost the refugees themselves, but also host countries in their region of origin and ultimately countries in other parts of the world affected by the onward movement of refugees.
We stress that the Convention Plus initiative is quite different from the various proposals that were discussed so heatedly in the run-up to the EU Summit in Thessaloniki last week. While there is some overlap with the discussions on regional initiatives, the Convention Plus initiative is the continuation of a process that long predates Thessaloniki. It is a global initiative.
This is not about "zones of protection," or containment of refugees in regions of origin or dumping them back there. Contrary to a current myth that has been doing the rounds in government briefs, NGO statements and media articles, UNHCR has never advocated any of these ideas, either under Convention Plus or any other of its recent proposals. Convention Plus is about finding solutions to refugee situations through better cooperation. In short, it's not about burden-shifting, it's about burden-sharing.
4) KAKUMA CAMP, KENYA
Northern Kenya's three Kakuma area refugee camps were reported calm for a third straight day today following nearly a week of fighting between armed Turkana and Sudanese refugees. We are, however, worried that a brief skirmish last night between paramilitary forces and local Turkana may dampen refugees' willingness to return to the Kakuma III site, which was most affected by the conflict. The security forces were deployed to the area early this week.
Paramilitary soldiers last night had a shoot-out with armed Turkana, some of whom were thought to be out to loot property left behind by refugees now displaced in other areas of Kakuma. One Turkana man was killed in the incident. Police arrested one suspect and recovered guns from others during the incident.
In the meantime, the number of displaced refugees encamped in public areas such as schools and churches in Kakuma I and II has risen to an estimated 14,000 -- up from some 8,000 two days ago. This figure represents nearly 50 per cent of Kakuma III's recently displaced population of 30,000. Numbers are rising as refugees who had earlier sought refuge among friends in other areas of the camps are now going to public areas where they can receive emergency aid.
Since Wednesday, UNHCR and partners have been providing emergency assistance to the displaced. Mobile clinics continue to be operated close to the displaced refugees. Although services at the main hospital have been fully resumed, the number of daily consultations has remained low as refugees remain fearful of leaving their homes. Partner NGOs have set up kitchens and are providing cooked food for children and other vulnerable refugees among the displaced. We have resumed normal water supply to many parts of Kakuma I and II. In addition, some 14,000 litres a day are being transported by truck for the displaced who are encamped in schools and other public buildings.
Local Turkana elders and refugee leaders continue to talk to their communities to maintain peace and stabilise the situation in Kakuma. A week of fighting triggered by a dispute between the local residents -- the Turkana -- and some Sudanese refugees over missing cattle left 11 people dead, nine refugees and two Turkana. The conflict displaced some 30,000 refugees in Kakuma III, and paralysed services, including medical care and food distribution, for several days. In total, nearly 86,000 refugees reside in the three Kakuma camps.