UNHCR briefing notes: Liberia, Angola/Zambia, Afghanistan
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.
UNHCR today is presenting details to donors of a new, $10.4 million appeal for emergency assistance to Liberian refugees affected by recent fighting in their country. This comes amid increasing concern over the condition of tens of thousands of displaced Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees caught up in the conflict. It also follows the arrival of more than 76,000 fresh Liberian refugees in neighboring countries since the beginning of this year - an exodus that is continuing. The new appeal is to provide assistance for up to 100,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.
At the same time, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers has issued an urgent plea for humanitarian access to and safe passage for tens of thousands of refugees and Liberian civilians displaced by the renewed fighting in Liberia. We are particularly worried about those who fled Sinje refugee camp on June 20 following an attack by rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Prior to the attack, Sinje housed more than 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and 13,000 displaced Liberians.
Sinje was looted and destroyed in the attack in which four Sierra Leonean refugees were reported killed and five nurses working for an NGO partner of UNHCR abducted. We continue to call for the release of the five nurses, who were taken away by LURD rebels driving a stolen UNHCR ambulance. They later used the ambulance's radio to contact UNHCR to report that the nurses were being held but would not be harmed. Last week, they said they would release the nurses, but we have heard nothing further.
Although a few thousand of the displaced Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees from the Sinje camp have reached either Monrovia or Sierra Leone, thousands are still believed hiding in the bush. We appeal to both sides in the conflict to ensure that humanitarian assistance can be safely delivered to these people, and that those who wish to leave can find safe passage to secure areas.
Making matters worse, recent arrivals at the Bo Waterside Bridge, which marks the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, say that forced conscription was taking place along the highway between Monrovia and Sierra Leone. They said that all males between 15 and 45 years of age were being forcibly recruited as they attempted to leave Liberia with their families. Two men were reported to have paid 800 Liberian dollars (US$18) to avoid conscription. Immigration officials at the Sierra Leonean border have confirmed a rise in the number of female-headed families among the recent arrivals.
Last week, there were also reports of up to 20 roadblocks along the same stretch of highway, with armed militia extorting money and personal belongings from those fleeing the fighting. With the only road to Sierra Leone closed by this insecurity, UNHCR is looking at the possibility of sea or air transport for the estimated 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who remain in Liberia.
A quick response to this new, $10.4 million appeal is absolutely crucial if we're to help the new Liberian refugees. The emergency appeal will cover a variety of needs, including rehabilitation and construction of camps, domestic needs, transport and logistics, water, sanitation, health and nutrition, and protection monitoring. The needs are enormous in a region already struggling to cope.
Guinea, for example, has had to face the recent arrival of 21,000 Liberians and we urgently need to establish a new camp, transport refugees from the border and provide immediate assistance to those coming to the border. Another 80,000 Liberian refugees were already in Guinea, mostly in urban areas.
Our office in Sierra Leone, which is already struggling to cope with the return of tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees from around the region, says it has only $250,000 left to deal with the recent arrival of some 40,000 Liberians. They need to set up three new camps as well as to provide trucks, water and domestic goods. To cope with the Liberian arrivals, repatriation convoys bringing Sierra Leonean refugees home from neighoring Guinea have been temporarily suspended for an initial period of two weeks to allow the use of maximum trucking capacity for the new Liberian arrivals.
In Liberia itself, UNHCR has to deal with a mixed population of Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians in our remaining five refugee camps in the Monrovia area. We have only 3,000 pieces of plastic sheeting and only a few blankets and mats left in stock for the more than 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and tens of thousands of displaced Liberians in the camps.
2) ANGOLA / ZAMBIA
UNHCR in Zambia reported this week that an estimated 10,000 Angolan refugees have spontaneously left Zambia since the cease-fire in Angola in March this year. This figure includes 4,000 who have left established camps and at least 6,000 who were settled in urban areas in western Zambia.
About 3,000 of the first Angolan returnees had been recent arrivals at Meheba refugee camp, in northwestern Zambia. Another 1,000 are believed to have left the camp of Mayukwayukwa, in Western Zambia. Some refugees advise us of their departure, but many others do not.
Information coming from local chiefs and Zambian officials at the Lukulu and Mwinilunga exit points also indicate that 6,000 Angolans who had been living in local communities in Zambia had returned.
Most of the returns from Zambia are believed to be headed for Moxico Province, which just across the border from western Zambia.
The movement is continuing on a small scale every day, according to UNHCR staff in Zambia who estimate that 15,000 could returned by September when the rainy season will start in Angola.
UNHCR is holding regular meetings with refugee leaders in the Zambia camps to inform them about the situation in Angola. The general feeling is that recently arrived refugees - since October last year - are eager to go back quickly, while long-time refugees are more prudent and adopting a « wait-and-see » attitude.
Zambia is host to 225,000 Angolan refugees, including some 81,000 in four UNHCR camps. In all, there are 470,000 Angolan refugees in the region, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Namibia. UNHCR estimates that as many as 80,000 could spontaneously return from neighbouring countries before the end of this year.
A brief update on Afghan returns: The number of refugees returning home to Afghanistan appears to be climbing again, with a total of 44,600 returning during the first four days of July. This represents an average of 11,150 per day, up from the June daily average of 9,700. However numbers are still not up to the May return numbers of 13,300 per day. In all 1,167,000 Afghans have returned home with UNHCR assistance since the beginning of March. Of these 1,068,000 have returned from Pakistan and 90,000 from Iran. UNHCR expects up to 2 million Afghans will return by the end of this year.