Côte d'Ivoire + 2 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia/Sudanese

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Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR media spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) C=D4TE D'IVOIRE

We are growing increasingly alarmed at the desperate plight of tens of thousands of Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire, particularly in the west of the country where tensions remain high. Following the reported presence in recent days of "English-speaking" fighters among the rebels seeking control of some areas of Côte d'Ivoire, Liberian refugees have become even more vulnerable. They have had to face growing antagonism from the local population and security forces alike, and are often prevented from moving freely or are intimidated and harassed.

Our office in Abidjan this week again asked Ivorian authorities to urgently identify a site for the temporary relocation of Liberian refugees who are still trapped in the conflict zone in the west of the country. At the same time, we have renewed our request to four countries in the West Africa region to accept a number of Liberians on a temporary asylum basis. So far, some three weeks after the first requests were made, no reply was received from any of these countries. Meanwhile, the position of the Liberian refugees continues to worsen.

In a letter to the Ivorian government, UNHCR urged the authorities to stop recruiting refugees into the ranks of loyalist forces, and to instruct Ivorian youth groups controlling numerous checkpoints to allow passage to Liberians fleeing the conflict. Many have reported being halted at the checkpoints. We also call on Ivorians to stop viewing all Liberians as rebels. Liberian refugees have already fled a cruel conflict at home. Now they are caught up in the middle of another one and are extremely vulnerable. They need protection and safety.

The situation remains tense this week near Tabou, on the southwestern coast, after armed rebels took control of the nearby town of Grabo. We have reports of large population movements out of Tabou this week. Hundreds of frightened Liberian refugees sought shelter at the UNHCR compound and the Catholic mission. The attack also pushed more than 6,000 Liberians back into Liberia at the Plebo crossing point, directly opposite Grabo, but more are reportedly prevented from crossing because of the presence of numerous security checkpoints.

Almost 60,000 people have fled to Liberia since the crisis spread to western Côte d'Ivoire on November 19. That figure includes 35,000 Liberians and 20,000 Ivorians. In eastern Liberia, UNHCR is strengthening its emergency operations to assist the new arrivals and transport them to safety.

UNHCR is pleased to report that all but one of 12 detained Liberians have finally been freed in Monrovia. The 12, who belonged to a musical group, had lived in Côte d'Ivoire for a few years and were part of a group of 27 Liberians who were flown home from Abidjan on December 14. They were detained for almost three weeks, undergoing security checks. They said they had been well treated and provided with food and water. UNHCR is trying to gain access to the remaining returnee, who is still in detention in Monrovia.

2) ETHIOPIA/ SUDANESE

Improved security has enabled UNHCR to visit Ethiopia's remote Fugnido camp for Sudanese refugees which was rocked by violent ethnic clashes last November. The ethnic conflict, between the Anuak refugees and the Nuer and Dinka communities, left 42, mainly Dinka, refugees dead and scores wounded. Following the November clashes, aid workers were not permitted to go to the volatile Fugnido camp for security reasons.

Staff who visited Fugnido for the first time in weeks described it as still tense. A number of refugees, mainly from minority ethnic groups who were particularly affected by the clashes in November, were found living in desperate conditions. They lacked basic supplies and had no shelter from the severe, hot and dry weather at this time of year. The visiting team immediately distributed plastic sheeting for shelter, jerry cans, blankets and basic kitchen utensils to the affected group.

On December 28, a total of 531 refugees were moved from the beleaguered site to Bonga refugee camp aboard eight buses organised by UNHCR and ARRA, the Ethiopian government department which oversees refugee matters. Bonga, home to nearly 17,000 Sudanese refugees of the Uduk community, is 160 kms north-east of Fugnido. Among the refugees relocated to Bonga is a group of nearly 200 who fled into a compound which houses UNHCR and ARRA staff in Fugnido in the wake of the vicious fighting which erupted in the camp over control of a minority committee. They are mainly Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians, a minority group in the camp who have been anxious about their safety and had asked to be moved elsewhere.

Fugnido is home to more than 28,700 refugees and is the largest of five refugee settlements in south-western Ethiopia's Gambella Region, where a total of 85,000 Sudanese are sheltered. The camp was first opened in 1988 but closed in 1991 in the aftermath of civil war which broke out in Ethiopia.

END