Côte d'Ivoire + 2 more

Côte d'Ivoire: IRIN interview with the Acting Representative of UNHCR for Côte d'Ivoire, Panos Moumtzis

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ABIDJAN, 14 March (IRIN) - Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire fear for their lives. They say they are harassed. Some of them have been killed. Many have been driven from their homes. And most wish to be relocated. In this interview with IRIN, the Acting Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Abidjan, Panos Moumtzis, talks of the refugees' plight and other issues, including the challenges UNHCR faces as it strives to find safer locations for them.
QUESTION: Is it true that the Liberians are living under precarious conditions in Cote d'Ivoire?

ANSWER: The situation of Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire since November last year has increasingly deteriorated and continues to be a challenge and a problem. Most of the Liberian refugees live in the western part of the country in the Zone d'Accueil des Refugies (ZAR), basically from the towns of Tabou all the way to Danane and Man. The rest live in Nicla camp, also in the west, and in the economic capital, Abidjan.

Out of an estimated 70,000 Liberian refugees in the country, about 45,000 who did not have refugee status, have gone back to Liberia since the outbreak of hostilities in the west. However for about 35,000 who still remain in the country, life has become increasingly difficult.

Hostility

In the government-controlled areas like Tabou, there was increased hostility towards Liberian refugees following the Grabo attack. [Grabo is a town in southwestern Cote d'Ivoire. It fell to rebels of the Justice and Peace Movement (MJP) in early January but loyalist troops later said they had recaptured it]. Local populations in Tabou received information from fellow Ivorians from Grabo that Liberians had been involved in looting, killings and violations of the human rights of Ivorians. As a result, they felt that the traditional hospitality [towards the Liberians in general] that had existed for many years could no longer continue.

Since then, there have been a number of security incidents involving Liberian refugees and Ivorians in the community. It was really sad to see that this traditional hospitality had broken down. For us the UNHCR, this hospitality was a model worldwide and was very genuine and incredible. This model has come to an end and the Liberian refugees are going through a very difficult time.

The situation became so difficult that thousands of them even left and went back home to less than ideal conditions, after deciding that the situation in Cote d'Ivoire was too problematic so it was better to go to a country that was at war than remain here.

There were incidents of Liberian refugees stopped at barricades and harassed by young patriots who accused them of being rebels. Companies, factories or industries and even local farmers say they do not want to hire Liberian refugees because they are rebels.

Efforts to counter the hostility

Through meetings, UNHCR in collaboration with local authorities and the government has tried to counter this sentiment, trying to tell people that these were refugees who had not participated in atrocities or crimes and that they were people who should be treated with respect. The situation calmed down a bit in Tabou. But our efforts to have a piece of land allocated for the resettlement of the refugees was still pending after the community refused to allow resettlement of the Liberian refugees in the area.

In Guiglo, also in western Cote d'Ivoire, Liberian refugees are really worried and afraid because this is where Nicla camp is situated. Until September, the camp had some 4,000 inhabitants, today it has up to 8,000 because of refugees who moved from Man and Danane areas. They are afraid because they are close to the frontline.

Most of the refugees remaining in the country are of Krahn [*] origin and are afraid of the government in Monrovia because they are regarded as the regime's enemy so they cannot go back home and yet in Nicla they are near the frontline. They are scared that in case of an attack they would be massacred. At present, unemployment remains a big problem, and education for their children since they are not welcome in the local schools any more.

As a result of fighting in the western area, some 20,000 Ivorians have also become internally displaced persons (IDPs), so the Liberians do not know where to go. They cannot go back home or farther into Cote d'Ivoire itself since at checkpoints they are often turned back. They live in constant fear and anxiety.

In Abidjan, there are about 2,000 Liberian refugees. Some 1,000 of them live in eight sites. These are people who lost their homes during the destruction of shantytowns. They feel harassed by the community and in places where they go to work. There have been incidents where neighbours have engaged in fights with them. When they go out in the streets they are stopped at checkpoints where they have to bribe their way out. These are people who lost their jobs, some of them had little businesses which they lost, others have come with letters from their landlords who say they do not want rebels living in their houses.

Generalisation: Liberian = trouble

There is this generalisation in many parts of the country whereby Liberians are seen in a very negative way as troublemakers; they are seen to have a bad reputation. UNHCR has tried to counter-balance this with a mass information campaign.

This anti-Liberian feeling is not only in Cote d'Ivoire. We have seen it in Ghana and a little bit in other countries in the subregion where Liberians have been seen as warriors, fighters or troublemakers. And there is this lack of willingness to receive them or to help them because of this worry that wherever they go, it means there will be an increase in arms sales, drugs and prostitution.

Q: What is the root cause of this feeling?

A: Some of it is prompted by local politicians who for reasons of gaining popularity and to be seen as protectors of the local populations, come up with very extreme and xenophobic points of view which add to this hostility and tension against Liberians. It could have also been perpetuated by the media. There have been also stories, sometimes exaggerated, that Liberians had contributed to looting or been involved in killings. The difficulty is that sometimes people mix it up, generalise and put everyone in one basket and say that all Liberians have done that and that's the worry. Lastly, there is war in Liberia and people hear the stories that come from there and these can also contribute to forming the negative image. But the truth is that these are perceptions which are very different from the truth on the ground. We work with these people and we know that they are people who have ambitions and dreams and who are victims of the war. They are suffering from a label they have got on their foreheads that they are rebels, prostitutes, child soldiers and drug dealers.

Q: It seems protection of the Liberian refugees remains a big problem?

A: The question of protection of Liberian refugees is huge. It remains our biggest problem - the fact that their safety and the safety of their children is not good right now. They are subject to harassment, tremendous pressure, arrests and they are extremely vulnerable. We have heard incidents of killings mainly in the west, and we are trying to find out what happened exactly. The whole area of the west is very open and uncontrollable. There is lawlessness and it is very difficult to operate or work there. It is not only hard for the refugees but also for the relief workers.

Q: What is the latest on UNHCR's effort to have Liberians evacuated to safer places or to other countries?

A: With regard to evacuations to other countries, we hope to have some positive developments but we are still waiting. However, the response has not been very encouraging. In Ghana, there is a strong anti-Liberia feeling and they want to evict the ones who are already there. Burkina Faso is poor and has already taken its own returnees from Cote d'Ivoire, about 150,000 of them. Guinea is also trying to have the 3,000 Liberian refugees in its territory transferred to IDP (internally displaced person) camps in Liberia, while Mali has not given any positive indication of taking in Liberian refugees.

Finding solutions to take them out is the top priority but we also realise that we might not be able to get out all 35,000 to other countries.

What we would also like to have in addition to an evacuation is to be able to relocate from the frontline those Liberian refugees in the western part of Cote d'Ivoire.

Q: What is the position on UNHCR's request to the government to have land allotted for the relocation of the refugees?

A: So far, we have seen goodwill from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abidjan and commitment from President Laurent Gbagbo when he met with UN Emergency Coordinator Carolyn McAskie [in January] to find a solution and take them somewhere else but there has not been any decision on that. I think there has been a lot going on with regard to peace and stability, the signing of the agreement (**) and the formation of the new government so we have not seen any answer to that question.

Q: Has any solution been reached so far?

A: We are feeling more desperate than ever with regard to finding a solution for these people. As every day goes by we hear and see so many problems - in the ZAR; in Abidjan with the host communities, with neighbours, and in Tabou with the host community too; in Guiglo, being so close to the frontline and the fact that the refugees are from enemy tribes. The same in Danane. The Liberians are trapped. They cannot go home. They cannot be where they are and nobody wants to receive them anywhere else. They really don't know what to do.

Q: Is recruitment into the fighting ranks still going on?

A: We are very concerned about the recruitment and we have tried to work with the government, with the foreign affairs ministry to stop it because we feel that refugees should be respected and kept out of this conflict. They are themselves victims of war back in Liberia. They have been hosted in Cote d'Ivoire for the last 15 years. It would not help them find a solution if there is recruitment going on at the same time. And we hope that our appeals to both the government and rebels, because the recruitment goes on on both sides, would be heard because it is not good since it also regionalises the conflict. It is contrary to the Linas-Marcoussis agreement and contrary to the spirit of peace.

Q: There were reports that about 100 Liberians who fought alongside the loyalist troops and were arrested in Duekoue would be handed over to UNHCR. What are the developments on this?

A: Ex-combatants or combatants fall within the mandate of ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] so ICRC is dealing with that. We are working very closely with ICRC to see if any of them are refugees. When we carried out our preliminary investigations we did not find any refugees among them.

Appeals

I would like to make an appeal to the government of Cote d'Ivoire to accelerate the process of finding an alternative site to relocate the refugees who are currently living in the frontline because they are constantly in danger. Cote d'Ivoire has shown extreme hospitality, a model for the rest of the world so I would appeal that even in this time of crisis the hospitality continue.

Secondly, I would like to appeal to countries in the region to reconsider and accept Liberian refugees from Cote d'Ivoire on a humanitarian evacuation basis. We want to save lives, we want to help civilians, we are talking of 80 percent of them being women and children. They are victims of war, we ask the countries to show solidarity at a time when another African country is going through war.

Funding is needed to carry out the work and to be able to find solutions. We can only do it if we have financial backing and support of donor countries. So I hope, now more than any other time, to be able to have the support of our donors given the extreme situation the country is going through, to be able to help people where they are.

NOTES

(*) The Krahn (also called Guere), who straddle the border between Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, are the ethnic group from which late Liberian President Samuel Doe came.

(**) An agreement aimed at paving the way for peace in Cote d'Ivoire was concluded by the country's main political parties and its three rebel movements in Linas-Marcoussis, France, in January 2003. It provided, among other things, for the formation of a government of national reconciliation comprising representatives of the groups party to the agreement, but this was delayed by disagreement over the allocation of key ministerial posts. A follow-up agreement signed in Accra on 8 March appeared to have ironed out most of the disagreements and part of the new government was announced at an inaugural meeting in Yamoussoukro on 13 March.

[ENDS]

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