Côte d'Ivoire + 1 more

Liberia: Ivoirian refugees hard to reach

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DAKAR, 6 April 2011 (IRIN) - Ivoirians who have fled to eastern and southeastern Liberia are choosing to settle in villages rather than camps and transit centres, making them harder to help, say NGO workers.

Most of the 100,000 Ivoirians who have fled into in Liberia since December 2010 are scattered across 90 villages in Nimba and Grand Geddeh counties, according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Suleiman Momodu.

Ivoirians feel safest staying with host communities just across the border from their homes, as they may have relatives in these villages or share the same ethnic background, said Anika Krstic, spokesperson with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Liberia's capital Monrovia.

As a result, a refugee camp in Bahn in Nimba County, 50km from the border, is sheltering some 2,500 refugees, despite being built to house up to 15,000.

Many Ivoirians return to their villages by day to keep up their livelihoods, re-crossing into Liberia at night, said Krstic. "With population movements continually shifting, it's hard to figure out who has already been registered and who is being registered for the first time," she added.

Poor roads impede access to many host villages said DRC, which is helping provide water and sanitation in transit centres, where refugees are temporarily housed before finding longer-term shelter.

Refugees who stay near the border, and continually cross back into Côte d'Ivoire put themselves at risk of attack, says DRC. Members of militias allegedly infiltrated border villages housing refugees in the southeast but were subsequently detained by Liberian police.

On 2 April, Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned of the potential for instability to spread across the border. "After years of war, Liberians are finally seeing the benefits of investment in peace, security and stability. We need to maintain that and ensure the country gets the help it needs, even as it welcomes so many refugees."

Host communities have largely welcomed the refugees thus far, as many of them were displaced during Liberia's 14-year civil war. One couple in Puuto, Nimba County, has taken in 75 Ivoirian refugees, giving them all their rice, most of their cassava supply, and whatever clothes they could find, according to David Waines, country director of NGO Equip. The couple just helped a refugee deliver her baby, and is helping another very sick refugee to recover.

However, many villages are becoming strained as new arrivals have caused their populations to double.

The local authorities have also been very responsive to the refugees' needs, according to Waines. The Liberian government's Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission is leading the refugee aid response, working alongside UNHCR, the World Food Programme, the UN Children's Fund, and NGOs, including Equip, DRC, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Oxfam.

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