DAKAR, 20 July (IRIN) - In a house overlooking the sea in Dakar, about 120 Ivorian men, women and children sleep 15 or 20 to a room on plastic mats and strips of cardboard. They survive on a single plate of rice a day and wonder where they will be tomorrow.
They have all been stranded in Senegal for three months after travelling from Guinea where conmen posing as UN officials promised them US and Canadian visas in exchange for money.
The Ivorians, most of lived in the rebel-held city of Danane in the west of the country, say they are refugees fleeing civil war.
But the UN refugee agency UNHCR says that not one of them can produce a refugee registration card issued in Guinea.
It suspects that they are simply economic migrants, who do not qualify for UNHCR protection and assistance.
Victims of a money-making scam
"We view this as a case of private individuals scamming people seeking to go abroad," Babacar Samb, UNHCR associate protection officer in Dakar, told IRIN. "By simple common sense, these people should have seen that something was not right when the individuals in question asked them for money."
"Even if it turns out that they are refugees, we would consider them to be refugees in illegal transit," he added.
Samb said that if that were the case, all the UNHCR could do would be to help the group return to Guinea, their first country of exile.
"But they have not asked us to help them return to Guinea," he added.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says more and more economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are making their way up the west coast to try to get to Europe following a clampdown on clandestine migrants travelling across the Sahara desert by the Arab governments of North Africa.
"More and more, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali are becoming the main transit points," said IOM programme officer Abibatou Wane. "It is a problem that is sure to persist."
Abandoned in Dakar
Whatever the real reason that led them to leave home, the group of stranded Ivorians is destitute and increasingly frustrated that no one appears willing to help them.
"We're abandoned. We didn't expect to spend more than a few days here," said Mohamed Kourouma, one of the displaced Ivorians. "So we're surprised that a few days has turned into a few months."
According to the group's leader and self-appointed spokesman, Ibrahim Kourouma, the 120 Ivorians in Dakar were all refugees in N'zerekore, the main town in the Forest Region of south-eastern Guinea.
Kourouma said an American calling himself Bill Howard and other people claiming to be UNHCR officials approached them. They offered the Ivorians fast track resettlement in the United States and Canada in exchange for money.
Kourouma said Howard and his associates extracted a total of 42 billion CFA francs (US $79,000) from 208 Ivorian exiles living in eastern Guinea.
Last April they bundled most of them into trucks for the three-day journey to Dakar, where they were supposed to catch a plane to Canada.
A second group of 80 people was dispatched to Bamako, the capital of Mali, Kourouma said.
Once the main group of Ivorians arrived in Dakar, they were put up in a large house overlooking the sea in the suburb of Parcelles Assainies. A few days later, Howard and his cronies disappeared.
"My last phone conversation with Bill was on 8 May," Kourouma said. "We can't find him and he has our money."
Incidents of corruption
At least part of the Ivorians' story does appear to stand up. One of the people accused by Kourouma of taking their money was formerly a UNHCR employee in Nzerekore.
Stefano Severe, the UNHCR representative in Guinea told IRIN that an internal investigation last year found that the woman concerned had in fact taken bribes. She absconded before disciplinary action could be taken and UNHCR Guinea did not know her whereabouts, Severe said.
The UNHCR does indeed run programmes to assist selected refugees unable to return to their home countries to resettle abroad.
Over the past two years, for instance, the United States has allowed in 6,500 Liberian refugees from Cote d'Ivoire.
But Samb stressed that the screening process in such programmes was extensive and the refugees themselves were never required to bear any of the expenses involved.
The Ivorians in Guinea apparently paid bribes to cut some corners and be slipped in with a departing group, which had already been granted clearance.
Kourouma said they were told that their resettlement process could be "accelerated" if they paid money.
"I see now that perhaps I was naïve," he said. "But when you have someone who says they're from HCR telling you they're going to help you, you think maybe God has shown you a way out."
Cases of fraud in the domain of refugee resettlement are not uncommon, UNHCR sources said. The agency conducts awareness campaigns in refugee communities to warn them against swindlers, telling refugees, if someone asks for money, run the other away.
In 2002 a UN oversight office found that scores of UNHCR employees in Nairobi participated in a scheme to take bribes from refugees seeking permanent resettlement in third countries.
All see themselves as refugees
Some of the Ivorians stranded in Dakar said had been living in refugee camps in Guinea, but most said they were trying to earn a living outside the camps in N'zerekore and the capital, Conakry.
All said they had fled their homeland after civil war broke out in September 2002.
Fanta Bamba, 20, said she fled to Guinea from Danane in November 2004 after being attacked by knife-wielding assailants as she walked home from the market.
"I woke up in a hospital bed; I don't know who brought me there," she said. The young woman said the scars on the right side of her face still hurt from time to time.
Fanta Kourouma, 38, said meanwhile that she and her children were driven out of their home in a police barracks in the central city of Bouake after her husband, a paramilitary gendarme, was executed by the rebels after they captured Bouake in October 2002.
Living off charity
Now, all the Ivorian exiles are largely dependent on the charity shown to them by the local Muslim community in Parcelles Assainies.
Pairs of rubber sandals large and small are strewn about the white-tiled hallway that serves as a bedroom for many of them. The group includes 23 children ranging in age from four months to 16 years. Overstuffed duffle bags and plastic sacks are stacked high against walls everywhere in the house.
The kitchen has become a bedroom, too, so the women use the front terrace to cook whatever food they can scrounge.
A nearby marabout gives the Ivorians several loaves of bread every day. Other sympathetic neighbours occasionally give them rice and other food items, or donate coins at the mosque.
Young men in the group try to earn a meagre income by hauling bricks on nearby building sites for 1000 CFA francs (about US $1.80) per day.
The Ivorians also depend on their Senegalese neighbours for a couple of basins of water a day.
The water supply in the house has been shut off for over two weeks, so there is not much for washing.
The women in the house said they worried most about the lack of food and their children's health.
Alice Camara, 38, who suffers from asthma, is accompanied by her five daughters and nieces. "We have to choose between treating our illnesses or eating," she said. "I am full of anxiety."
The owner of the house, Mor Diop, said Howard and a Senegalese man, purportedly named Arouna N'diaye, told him in April that they would pay him for the group to stay in his house for only a few days to await their flight out.
The landlord said he charged a monthly rent of 250,000 CFA francs ($460), but had only received a small deposit from Howard and his associate at the outset and had not heard from them at all since the end of April.
"I can no longer keep all these people in my house, with no one paying," he said. "This is completely draining me. But there are women and children and sick people there. I can't put them in the street."
Diop said he hoped the Ivorian government or the UNHCR would do something to help the group so he could free up his house.
Most of the Ivorians still hope that they will eventually go to the United States or Canada.
Masse Fadiga, 32, sleeps on the roof of the house, her shelter a dilapidated door set across the corner of the roof's low wall and held down by a few broken cinder blocks.
Stranded in Dakar with her husband and 10-year-old son, she says the family hopes to get to Canada one day.
"Having lost everything in the war, I want to find some kind of job there so I can send money back to my family," she said, lying on a dingy foam mattress in one of the bedrooms where women gather to talk or rest.
What to do?
Authorities are struggling to define the stranded group.
"It's a delicate matter for Senegalese authorities," said IOM programme officer Vijaya Souri. "They must - in accordance with their own laws - decide how to consider these people who are on their sovereign territory."
An Interior Ministry source familiar with the case said Senegalese officials were conducting an investigation to determine exactly what happened to the Ivorians.
The Cote d'Ivoire embassy in Dakar declined to comment on their plight.
Souri said swindlers were coming up with more and more ways to dupe vulnerable people into parting with money in exchange for a visa to Europe or North America. "Unfortunately today the forms of abuse and exploitation are so diverse, it is difficult to tackle," he said.
Cote d'Ivoire was once a beacon of economic prosperity, peace and stability in West Africa and the Ivorians say they are humiliated to be reduced to mere beggars.
Abraham Bakayoko, 26, said he was a university student in Abidjan when the civil war broke out.
"We're hesitant to beg from people here, with the small amount of dignity we have left," he said.
"If you see us all still here together, waiting, it's because we're still holding on to the dream of going to the United States or Canada after three years of suffering."
Once a militant supporter of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) opposition party, Bakayoko is now disillusioned with politics.
"Since the war, I no longer have a political party," he said. "My political party is my stomach."
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