Côte d'Ivoire + 1 more

Cote d'Ivoire: Durable solutions elusive for Liberian refugees

News and Press Release
Originally published
Liberia, with a transitional government, over 15,000 UN peacekeepers, and elections scheduled for October 2005, has been declared by its government as "ready to receive" the nearly 350,000 people who have fled fighting over the fifteen past years. While the international community is eager to accelerate the return home of Liberian refugees, the estimated 50,000 who are now living in volatile Cote d'Ivoire are unsure whether to go or stay. Since the late President Houphouet-Boigny spoke of our "brothers in distress," the Ivorian government has promoted the integration of refugees into local villages over the creation of camps, establishing the ZAR (Zone d'Accueil des Réfugiés), where most Liberian refugees are required by the Ivorian government to live. Some have been living in Cote d'Ivoire for over a decade, while others have been crossing back and forth between the two countries in response to the shifting waves of fighting and instability.

"People going back now are going to be beggars," one refugee in Tabou told Refugees International. Because of good communication links across the Cavally River, most Liberians living in some 80 villages in the Tabou region know that little reconstruction or community development work has started in their home counties of Maryland, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, and Nimba. "It's pretty much jungle over there," commented one NGO staff member. "At least here there is some work, and some facilities." For some, the security situation in Liberia is still too precarious. Many of these refugees have already been through a repatriation process, only to be forced to flee again. Refugees continually expressed their doubts about the current peace process, and expressed their fears over the continued presence of Charles Taylor in the region. "Why should I go back now just to run back here in a few months time?"

Those that did express interest in taking part in the voluntary facilitated return process organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were frustrated by a lack of information and poor coordination. In the border village of Prollo, near Tabou, several families told RI that they had signed up for repatriation, yet were not on the list for return. A UNHCR official said that they were having problems coordinating logistics with UNHCR in Liberia, and that the trucks they had originally hoped would carry 250 could only carry 100. Those in Prollo did not have this information, however, and thought they had been forgotten. An international NGO representative said that there were additional problems in coordinating protection services for vulnerable populations across the border.

RI spoke with Liberians who were unclear about important details of the repatriation process. Many thought they could vote in the October elections, unaware that it was too late for them to register. Others thought that the five dollar secondary transportation allowance was a repatriation allowance, and felt it was unfair compared to the $300 received by ex-combatants. In addition, they were upset that ex-combatants are receiving subsidized training while most refugees have not received this kind of assistance in Cote d'Ivoire, nor could they expect it on return to Liberia.

Nevertheless, growing tensions in Cote d'Ivoire make many Liberians afraid to stay. Liberians are suspected by many Ivorians of being former combatants and of bringing war. Some village chiefs have held meetings to try and calm growing animosity towards Liberians. Yet with anti-foreigner sentiment running high in Cote d'Ivoire, Liberians feel even more vulnerable. The shared ethnic background of the Liberians and the Ivorian for many does not mean unity, but rather mistrust: "We understand their dialect so we know they hate us."

An official at SAARA (Service d'Aide et d'Assistance aux Réfugiés et Apatrides), the Ivorian agency that deals with refugees, invoked the precedent of the "Zambia Initiative," referring to a set of programs undertaken by UNHCR and the Zambian government to assist with the local integration of long-staying refugees in Zambia. Despite official intentions, however, local integration efforts are facing problems. Due to overcrowding, few places in Ivorian schools are currently open to Liberian children. A UNHCR official expressed frustration that their most recent attempts to build temporary classrooms was refused by the Ivorian government on the grounds that the proposed classrooms weren't of high enough standards.

There have also been delays in providing Liberians with individual photo identification cards. Without these cards, Liberian face serious problems while traveling in country; they are often detained, forced to pay bribes or perform manual labor by Ivorian security officials. With the Ivorian government struggling with its own law concerning identity and nationality, and with UNHCR focusing on repatriation, a senior UNHCR official expressed doubts that this situation would be improved in the near future. Most importantly, Liberians who are considering the possibility of staying are unclear what their permanent residence options are.

Where funding is available, Liberians in villages receive community-based assistance including health clinics, wells and a community center. These programs seem to go a long way in helping to bring Ivorians and Liberians together. A lack of community projects, as RI witnessed in the village of Soublaké near Tabou, appeared to correlate directly to increased tensions between Liberians and their Ivorian hosts. There, Liberians complained that they were forbidden to work or forage in the bush. UNHCR confirmed that many of the Liberians in Soublaké have made an application to move into the Transit Camp in Tabou.

In contradiction to the integration policy, close to 6,500 Liberians live in "Peacetown," a camp near Guiglo, and 2,600 live in the Tabou Transit Centre. While those in Peacetown are well-cared for, the Liberians living in the Transit Center face difficult living conditions. The Center was never meant to be a camp, and still is not designated as such, but started receiving Liberians during a period of growing tension two years ago. Families have divided the transit halls into makeshift housing units. There is little in the way of educational or vocational training. While UNHCR and the Caritas camp management are providing some basic services, UNHCR said they would be cutting back in conjunction with the repatriation process. Tens of thousands of Liberians are now living in villages, yet those in Peacetown and the Tabou Transit Center claim it is too dangerous for them to integrate locally. A representative from Caritas agreed that there are security problems, but doesn't believe that Liberians are targeted per se. "It is like this for everyone, even Ivorians."

Without more clarity about their situation, the risk for Liberians now is that they will refuse to make a decision about their future, hoping for resettlement in the United States, an option provided to refugees during a particularly difficult time in 2003. The consensus now, however, is that resettlement is not an option. In the meantime, their chance at a facilitated return may slip through their fingers. Given the grave concerns expressed by the Liberian refugees, if resettlement continues to be ruled out, then international agencies and the Ivorian government have the responsibility of making the two currently available options --- repatriation or local integration --- as secure and feasible as possible.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

- UNHCR clarify to the refugees what repatriation and local integration possibilities are available, and how best they can take advantage of these options.

- UNHCR improve the logistical coordination between its offices in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.

- Donors and international agencies invest more resources in the Liberian counties of return,initiating projects that assist single women and women headed households as they make the transition back to Liberia, as well as vocational and educational programs for the whole population.

- With its laudable commitment to local integration, the Ivorian government, in cooperation with UNHCR and donors, strengthen its program for Liberians by addressing issues of identity cards, permanent resident status, relocation outside the ZAR, and easier enrollment in Ivorian schools. Considering the growing tensions in Cote d'Ivoire, donors should increase funding for community-based assistance and development projects which help relieve tension between Liberians and Ivorians in the short-term, as well as develop the possibility for peaceful long-term integration.

- UNHCR work closely with the Liberians residing in the Tabou Transit Center to keep them informed about its future and help them find acceptable local integration solutions if they are currently not interested in repatriating. This effort could include setting up meetings between Liberians in the Transit Center and those successfully integrated locally.

- UNHCR and international donor governments closely monitor the situation in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire and revisit the possibility of offering resettlement as a durable solution if the situation warrants it.

Advocates Sally Chin and Mamie Mutchler recently returned from a three-week assessment mission to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.

Contacts: Sally Chin and Mamie Mutchler
ri@refugeesinternational.org or 202.828.0110