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YMCA Liberia: Situational assessment of the returnee/refugee situation on the Liberian-Ivorian border

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1. INTRODUCTION
On Thursday, November 28, 2002 it was reported that Ivorian rebel forces had attacked the Ivorian-Liberian border towns of Gbinta and Danane. This attack caused immediate panic and concern within Liberia as over thirty-five (35,000) Liberians had over the past ten year settled in Danane as refugees. Most of the Liberian refugees in Danane were applicants for the United States Government's Resettlement Program.

Information filtering into Monrovia reported of mass movement of people towards the Liberian border towns of Gborplay, Kianlay, Tuopplay, Logatuo among others. A pending humanitarian situation was apparent, but the magnitude yet unclear. Accordingly, the YMCA of Liberia dispatched a team to border towns to carry out an on the spot situational assessment to determine the facts and identify practical intervention strategies in responding to the situation.

The team comprised the following:

1. Sam E. Hare, Jr - Development Secretary/YMCA of Liberia

2. Mr. Joseph S. Kiepeeh - Executive Director/ Ganta YMCA

3. Mr. Francis Marwieh - Rural Development Consultant

4. Mrs. Elizabeth Varney - Executive Director/ Yekepa YMCA

2. TERMS OF REFERENCE

The terms of reference of the assessment were as follows:

  • Provide an estimate of the number of returnees/ refugees at the visited border towns.

  • Determine which NGOs and related organizations were presently on the ground and what were their level and strategy of intervention.

  • Describe the general humanitarian situation under which the returneesrefugees were presently undergoing.

  • Identify possible interventions by the YMCA.
3. ASSESSMENT METHODOLOGY
  • Visit the towns of Yekepa, Karnplay, Kianlay, and Logatuo

  • Hold discussions with returnees and refugees

  • Hold discussions with local government officials

  • Hold discussions with NGOs on the ground

  • Observation
4. ASSESSMENT/ FINDINGS

The assessment visit was held on Sunday, December 1, 2002. We first visited Yekepa, a border town with Guinea, which is also located near the Ivorian border. We found the town peaceful and quiet with no signs of refugee/ returnee presence. We held discussions with eleven (11) key leaders of the Yekepa Community including the Executive Director and staff of the Yekepa YMCA, the Town Magistrate, the Yekepa Community leaders and elders of the town. They reported that the community was calm although there had been persistent rumors of an attack by Liberian dissident forces from neighboring Guinea. They noted that the influx of refugees/ returnees into Yekepa was negligible. Only thirty (30) persons had been reported to had entered Yekepa to date and had more or less integrated into the community or had departed for other areas. We observed the calm to be real and saw no adverse humanitarian situations. However, given the community's proximity to the Ivorian border, anything was still possible and they promised to report any upcoming situations.

KARNPLAY

The team then departed for Karnplay. The situation in Karnplay is pathetic, severe and has the capacity for a humanitarian disaster unless immediate interventions are made.

Karnplay has been identified as the transit point for returnees/ refugees from the nearby border towns. Karnplay is approximately twenty (20) miles from Logatuo and twentyfive (25) miles from Gborplay. The roads are eroded, rocky and nearly impassable except with sturdy 4x4 vehicles. Upon our arrival in Karnplay, UNHCR trucks were transferring returnees from Logatuo and Gborplay to a local Junior High School which had been hastily transformed into a transit center. We held discussions with a cross section of over forty (40) returnees as well as social workers from the Children Assistance Program and MSF/Belgium. The following were our findings:

  • The transfer of returnees/ refugees from Logatuo and Gborplay to Karnplay was mainly to move the refugees further inland in case of renewed hostilities around the border areas. Reconnaissance planes and fighter jets had been reported flying over the area putting the security of the returnees/ refugees at risk.

  • The school which has been transformed into a transit center is by far too small to accommodate the large number of returnees that were being transported form Gborplay and Logatuo intermittently, every two or three hours. The building which has an approximate dimension of 40' x 65' can accommodate, to an extreme, a maximum of about 50 people. We observed, however, that the building was presently hosting over 300 returnees/ refugees. Outside in the school yard, over three thousand five hundred (3,500) returnees were scatter in the school yard in the open air with no blankets, buckets, toiletries, pots, pans, or any other material that would have made their transit a little more bearable.

  • Little children and babies were observed to be all over the fields with little or no care/attention.

  • These returnees had been remove from Logatuo since Friday, November 30, 2002 and up to the point of our arrival, no safe drinking water, food or toilet facilities had been provided be any government or non government agency. The children Assistance program (CAP) had early during the day provided two cups of rice per household. An average Liberian household comprises about twelve (12) persons.

  • Only four (4) agencies were observe to be present on the ground: UNHCR, MSF-Belgium, Concern World Wide and the Children Assistance Program. They too stated that they were still carrying out an assessment for immediate intervention, although, no specific details were provided.

  • The Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) were also reported to be on the ground although their presence was not been felt.

  • The situation in Karnplay, as serious as it already is, will eventually grow in a severe humanitarian crisis as hundreds of returnees are being transported there from Logatuo and other neighboring border towns on a hourly basis. Without the necessary interventions put in place, a humanitarian disaster of no small proportions is inevitable.

  • What became very clear throughout our assessment in Karnplay was the fact that over 85% of the cross section of returnees that we talked to expressed an overwhelming desire to be transported from Karnplay to their nearest point of destination on the Karnplay - Monrovia Highway, where they will easily be able to return home and integrate with family and friends. This, in our opinion, is the #1 priority, in terms of need for the returnees in Karnplay.

  • Until such transportation is arranged and implemented, below constitutes other basic needs of the returnees in the order of expressed priority:
    1. Safe drinking water
    2. Shelter
    3. Food
    4. Non-food supplies (blankets, buckets, pots, toiletries etc.)
    5. toilet and sanitary facility
    6. medicine
KIANLAY

The team then departed to Kianlay enroute to Logatuo. Kianlay (also a border town with Ivory Coast) is approximately ten (10) miles from Logatuo. Close to five thousand (5,000) returnees crossed over into Kianlay through bush roads. The situation in Kianlay appeared worse than that of Karnplay, in that, absolutely nothing was being done about their conditions. They were told to wait their turn for transportation to Karnplay (app. 30 miles away). The returnees were spread out on an open field without shelter, water, food, sanitation, medicine, etc., waiting to be transported. The waiting period would be a long time as the UNHCR is prioritizing the transfer of returnees from Logatuo and Gborplay ( an approximate sum total of 25,000 returnees) before Kianlay.

LOGATUO

Logatuo is located on the Liberian-Ivorian border approximately fifteen miles from Danane. Across the river which divides Liberia and La cote D'Ivoire, is the Ivorian border town of Gbinta, which is now under rebel control. Logatuo is a major immigration and custom point. It is also the major point of entry into La Cote D'Ivoire from Liberia by road.

The conditions of the returnees in Karnplay are only the 'tip of the iceberg' given the situation we found in Logatuo. The Logatuo situation can best be described as a humanitarian catastrophe in the making unless rapid, strategic and consolidated interventions are made.

The situation can briefly be described as follows:

  • Between 17,000 - 20,000 returnees-refugees, mostly women and children, sprawled out in the open air since Thursday, November 28 (4 days), without:
    - shelter
    - safe drinking water
    - food
    - toilet and sanitation facility
    - medicine
    - Adequate mattresses, blankets, buckets, pots, toiletries etc.

  • Between 17,000 - 20,000 returnees-refugees, across the river from a potentially hostile rebel controlled Ivorian town (Gbinta) vulnerable to a possible counter attack from Ivorian government forces on land and by air. (A Reconnaissance aircraft and fighter jets were reported flying intermittently over the town and refugees.)

  • Returnees reported to have abandoned possessions in Danane as the fled the fighting.

  • Very little Ivorian refugees were reported to have crossed over into Liberia. The figure was estimated by those earlier on the ground as less than 10% of total returnee-refugee population.

  • Extremely hazardous water and sanitation conditions. A stream passing through the campsite is being used by the approximately 20,000 returnees-refugees for washing, bathing, toilet, cooking and drinking.

  • Cases of running stomach, assumed to be diarrhea and cholera were reported by the returnees.

  • No deaths have been reported up to the time of our assessment. However, cases of malaria, swollen limbs, typhoid, starvation, fatigue and general helplessness were reported and could be generally observed.

  • Interventions by government and non-government organizations were at a minimum. Up to the time of our assessment, the only assistance being provided as reported by the returnees was by the UNHCR (transportation to Karnplay). The Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) was reported to be only registering returnees. The following organizations were reported and seen to be carrying out assessment for possible interventions:
    - MSF- Belgium
    - Red Cross Society of Liberia
    - International Commission of the Red Cross
    - International Refugee Commission
    - Government of Liberia
    - Concern Worldwide-Liberia
    - Children Assistance Program
    - American Refugee Council (ARC)
GBORPLAY

The YMCA assessment team did not have the opportunity to visit the Liberian border town of Gborplay. Reports gathered from social workers who had assessed the area, however, describe the situation as very similar to that of Logatuo (in population and conditions), if not worse.

5. ASSESSMENT SUMMARY

The Humanitarian crisis that has been created in the Liberian border towns of Logatuo, Gborplay, Kianlay, and Karnplay, as a result of armed hostilities in the Ivory Coast near the Liberian border, can best be described as a "catastrophe in the making", unless rapid, strategic and consolidated response interventions are made immediately.

An estimation of thirty five thousand (35,000) people, mostly women and children, have been massively and rudely displaced from their residences in Danane, Gbinta, and other surrounding Ivorian towns into the Liberian border towns of Logatuo, Gborplay, and other surrounding border villages.

An approximate 10% of this population are reported to be Ivorian refugees.

The situation of the returnees-refugees in Logatuo and Kianlay can best be described as deplorable and inhuman as follows:

Between 17,000 - 20,000 returnees-refugees, mostly women and children, sprawled out in the open air since Thursday, November 28 (4 days), without:
- shelter
- safe drinking water
- food
- toilet and sanitation facility
- medicine
- Adequate mattresses, blankets, buckets, pots, toiletries etc.

The approximate distance from key towns from Monrovia are as follows:

- Logatuo: 200 miles
- Gborplay: 205 miles
- Kianlay: 185 miles
- Karnplay: 180 miles
- Sanniquellie: 160 miles
- Ganta: 140 miles

According to information gathered from the field visit, the primary intervention strategy of the UNHCR is to transport all returnees-refugees from Logatuo, Kianlay, Gborplay, etc. to Karnplay, where a site has been identified and is being transformed into a displaced/ transit center. Until then, little or nothing has been provided for the returnees-refugees despite the deplorable conditions under which they are undergoing for the past four days (Nov. 28 - Dec 2, 2002).

Four large trucks (app. 4 tons) were observed to be transporting returneesrefugees from Logatuo to Karnplay. Each truck transports a maximum of fifty (50) people including their belongings. It will take a truck approximately two hours from Logatuo to Karnplay. That means a truck will be able to transport fifty (50) persons every six (6) hours. (2 hours to go, 2 hours to return and 1 hour to load and 1 hour to unload.) In a working day's time, therefore, a truck will be able to transport a maximum of 100 people assuming that it works 12 hours a day. With four trucks, only about four hundred (400) people can be transported daily. With a returnee population of app. 17,000 - 20,000 in Logatuo alone, it will take that process almost forty-five (45) days to complete. With that strategy the situation is bound to deteriorate.

With the war reportedly still raging in nearby towns in Ivory Coast, more returnees-refugees are pouring into Logatuo, Gborplay, Kianlay, etc. on a daily basis.

The Liberian returnees are a unique group, strikingly different from other presently existing displaced people in the country. The displaced people in Liberia at present have been displaced from their towns and villages within Liberia because of the ongoing dissident war. These towns and villages are, more or less, still inaccessible. This is basically not the same situation. Over 85% of the Liberian returnees are those who had, more or less, settled in Danane seeking resettlement in the United States of America under the United States Resettlement Program. Most of them have accessible places of origin, homes, and families, friends that could facilitate an easy re-integration into the Liberian society, at the shortest possible time. What appears to be a major problem hampering this is transportation from Logatuo, Gborplay, Kianlay, Karnplay, etc., to the nearest major city to their place of destination. (Ganta or Sanniquellie).

6. PRESENT NATIONAL CONTEXT

This situation is happening at a time when Liberia is at its worse economically, socially, politically, security, and internationally. Less than two years following the inauguration of the newly elected government in 1997, a new series of civil conflicts erupted once again, resulting into severe humanitarian crisis of displaced people, refugees, starvation, violence, destruction of property, etc. In mid-April and mid August 1999, dissident forces attacked Northern Lofa. As a result, investments and the general economy plummeted. The attack by the dissident forces resulted in a high loss of lives and destruction of property. Over 100,000 people became displaced which created a severe humanitarian crisis in the country. The effect of this situation severely affected Monrovia and its environs. Since then, prices are consistently unstable thus increasing the already high rate of poverty, unemployment and the generally low standard of living. Recent reports from international institutions based in Liberia put the poverty rate at 85%.

In February 2002, The fighting entered Tubmanburg and its environs. This new round of hostilities resulted in an increase in the destruction of lives and property. To date, over three hundred thousand (300,000) people are now displaced all throughout Liberia and the humanitarian crisis continue to be severe, placing untold hardship on thousands of Liberians particularly women and children.

Responses to the crisis have been minimal as Liberia continues to be of low priority to International community. Given the accusations of the Liberian Government alleged involvement in gun running, diamond smuggling and collaboration with the RUF rebel movement in Sierra Leone by the international community, selective economic sanctions as well as an arms embargo were imposed on Liberia by the United Nations. Bi-lateral assistance to Liberia has also dropped to its lowest while national NGOs experienced a severe reduction and closure at times due to donor fatigue. International assistance to Liberia has fallen from one hundred million United States dollars in 2001, to thirty million United States dollars in 2002. The Liberian dollar which had a parity to the United States dollars of 40:1 only two months ago is now 55:1 US$. Prices are also increasing at the same progression even if you purchase using United States dollars.

Unemployment is as high as 85% while Government employees (the largest employment sector in the country) continues to have a backlog of salaries of over seven (7) months. On the other hand, the cost of education and health is extremely high, above the general affordability of the average Liberian. Infrastructure of the country continues to decline with no running water or electricity. Roads are in deplorable conditions, as they have not been rehabilitated since the war. The cost of construction is extremely high, thus making private initiatives for reconstruction difficult. A general sense of uncertainty and decadence continue to characterize the political socio-economic context of the country.

The Northeastern regions of Liberia, comprising Nimba County, have been one of the worst hit regions in the country over the past twelve years. To date, this region has not recuperated from the massive destruction of infrastructure, public utilities, social services, schools, hospitals, roads, communications, etc. It is within this region that this new humanitarian disaster is looming.