By Anne Look
GRAND GEDEH, Liberia, 4 April 2011- More than 100,000 Ivoirians have fled to Liberia since last November's disputed presidential election. About two-thirds are children, who are now in desperate need of food, clean drinking water, shelter, sanitation facilities and medical care.
"This is a massive humanitarian crisis. It is a children's emergency and we need to make sure they are fed, protected and educated," said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson during a visit to refugee camps in Liberia last week. "Children should not become the victims of political disputes."
With violence in Côte d'Ivoire worsening, humanitarian workers in Liberia anticipate between 250,000 and 500,000 refugees will arrive by this summer. In the eastern county of Grand Gedeh, the refugee population has swelled from 2,000 to more than 30,000 in the past three weeks alone.
"We are at a crossroads now where we need to scale up, speed up and be able to deliver at a much higher level than we have done so far," said Ms. Johnson.
At the Toe Town transit camp, Ms. Johnson visited an Ivoirian mother who currently shares a small room with 19 other members of her family. Outside, the afternoon sun dried a patchwork of laundry spread out on the grass, as Stephanie, 5, sold snails in a makeshift market area.
"Things aren't too good. I miss my home," he said, swatting flies away from his wares with a palm branch. "There is no school here. I want to go to school."
UNICEF and partners are working with 38 communities to develop and improve water sources, sanitation and hygiene. In Toe Town, a treated water supply system has been set up, as well as emergency sanitation facilities, but basic necessities continue to mount. "They need more of everything," said Ms. Johnson.
"We heard gunfire in the next village and saw people fleeing and heading towards the border. We were afraid so we just followed them," said Boya Tryphene, 23, who fled her village in western Côte d'Ivoire on foot with her two-year-old daughter and elderly mother.
Like many refugees, Ms. Tryphene had to walk for days through forest in order to reach the Liberian border. She is now staying with a host Liberian family in the county of Nimba, where the majority of refugees in the country reside.
"We registered when we arrived but it has now been six days and we have not received any food," said Ms. Tryphene. "When we fled, we did not bring any food with us. I left my job as a health worker behind, so I do not have any money either."
The influx of refugees has also exhausted the already-strained resources of host communities.
"The Liberians have been welcoming the refugees, assisting them, and giving them food and seeds to help them survive, but the communities are overwhelmed," said Ms. Johnson, who added that humanitarian assistance is needed to help both sets of people.
Children at risk
The refugee crisis has put more than 85,000 Ivoirian and Liberian children at risk. UNICEF and partners have set up clinics to treat the growing number of malnourished children, while also providing pre-school and primary school classes in French for refugees.
"The children need to go to school, to be together and play with Liberian children, so that they leave thoughts of the war behind them," said Gouanou Zouo Nazaire, a refugee community leader in Karnplay, one of 15 designated host communities. "Since classes started here, we have seen the children starting to adapt."
More than 1,000 refugee children in those designated host communities, and more than 600 in Bahn refugee camp in Nimba, are now attending pre-school or receiving a primary education. UNICEF is supporting education, child protection and nutrition efforts in the camp, including the creation of a child-friendly space where more than 450 children can now play and participate in cultural activities.
During her visit, Ms. Johnson watched children sing, dance and play in the space. "I know there is a lot of uncertainty in your country and life is not easy right now," she told the children, "but we are going to help you."