Benin + 1 more

Benin: Togolese refugees continue to trickle in, but funds do not

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DAKAR, 2 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - People are still fleeing Togo more than three months after disputed presidential polls and the refugees, who now number 40,000, are showing no sign of wanting to go home, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday as it repeated an appeal to donors for money.

Since the eruption of violence in April after a disputed presidential poll, 24,500 Togolese refugees have crossed the eastern frontier into Benin, and a further 15,500 have gone west into Ghana - scattering through the border regions in both countries.

Although the rate of new arrivals has fallen from the several thousand a week at the height of Togo's political crisis, there are still about 200 people a week being registered in Benin, said UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, Jennifer Pagonis. No new refugees have been reported in Ghana since late May.

While the total number of refugees continues to climb, UNHCR is struggling with a funding shortfall. It needs a total of US $4.7 million for its operations in Benin and Ghana, but has so far received only $1.75 million and has been forced to dip into its own reserve fund for another $1.5 million.

"That leaves us with a shortfall of $1.45 million," said Pagonis. "There are no signs that the refugees are intending to return home in the immediate future and it is crucial that donors respond to our request for funds to assist this population."

Those Togolese that continue to cross into Benin say they are fleeing persecution by the security forces, allegedly intent on weeding out perceived opponents of President Faure Gnassingbe, the declared winner of the controversial ballot.

The majority of the refugees are young men from the south of the country, a region associated with support for the opposition.

"The story we hear relentlessly repeated is that while by day the situation is calm, it is at night that things happen," said one aid worker in Benin, who asked not to be named.

"Areas populated by opposition sympathisers and militants seem to be visited by people in uniform, and nobody knows what happens to them thereafter ... There is a climate of fear."

The government has given assurances that it is now safe for people who fled the country to return, and has denied the allegations of continued rights abuses.

At talks in July in Rome between Eyadema and veteran opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, both men reportedly agreed on the need for reconciliation and the return of the refugees.

But some aid workers say that repatriation is still months away.

"As much as repatriation is a much sought-after goal, it will not be on the cards before the end of the year and maybe not even next year," said one humanitarian official.

"There is a militant hardcore among the refugees who do not want to hear anything about it. They need to feel that at least some of their concerns have been addressed," he added.

Togo's hurried presidential poll in April followed the death of Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had led the country for 38 years. His son Faure was officially declared the winner, and ensuing street protests were put down by the security forces.

A so-called "radical" opposition has refused to join a government of national unity formed by the new president.

[ENDS]

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