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Ivory Coast crisis: fragile situation for refugees

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By Sarah Oughton
April 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

David Peppiatt, our international director, reports back from Liberia where tens of thousands of refugees have fled from fighting in the Ivory Coast:

Last week I spent five days visiting some of the most remote communities along the Liberian border with the Ivory Coast, where the complexity of the situation, with its ethnic divisions and history of violence, became increasingly evident.

Given the political events in Abidjan, with Gbagbo arrested, I wondered if it would lead to people wanting to return. But most people we spoke to are too frightened and it’s not surprising given what they’ve experienced.

Many refugees fled terrible violence and conflict in recent weeks and months and it’s uncertain when they will feel safe enough to return.

One of the issues in this current crisis is that you can’t just meet the needs of the refugee population without addressing the needs and vulnerabilities of the communities who are hosting them. When it comes to accessing food and water, the needs of Liberians along the Ivory Coast border are great and are being exacerbated by the influx of refugees.

Liberia is rated on the UN Human Development Index as 162 out of 169 countries, meaning it has high levels of poverty and one of the worst rates of life expectancy at birth in the world. The hospitality Liberian communities have shown to refugees is therefore even more impressive.

During the Liberian civil war, many Liberians sought refuge in communities in the Ivory Coast and there’s something remarkable about the reciprocation of that care in time of crisis – families are sharing everything, their food, homes and water with their neighbours from across the border.

Almost everyone we spoke to said their main concern was to feed their family and it’s clear there’s a real scarcity of food.

With the influx of refugees, there are now an additional 110,000 people in an area where getting enough food to eat is already a major challenge. Responding to this need has to be a priority for the Red Cross.

It means we’ll have to prepare for the next 6-12 months to support the refugees and the host communities. It’s not a separate issue, as around 90 per cent of refugees are living in host communities. We visited one village in Nimba county of 1,500 that has exploded to 15,000 creating huge pressures on food and water.

When you see such high levels of need in food, health and shelter it can seem overwhelming.

But we need to focus on the key areas in which we have expertise and can make a difference, such as: first aid; water and sanitation; restoring family links; and distributing tools and seeds to help families address their food needs.

But health needs for example, need to be met by another agency and we need to co-ordinate with other agencies.

By the end of the week, it was clear to me that many Ivorian refugees feel very uncertain what the future holds and that the humanitarian crisis is by no means over.

I know we’ve been asking a lot of our supporters recently with so many disasters and so many appeals for money. But it is clear to me that this is a crisis in which your help can make all the difference.