Côte d'Ivoire + 1 more

Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire

Over 50,000 Liberian refugees are in Cote d'Ivoire, unsure whether to go home or to stay. The majority of them are required by the Ivorian government to live in the officially designated Refugee Welcome Area, which is located in the west of the country along the Liberia/Cote d'Ivoire border. To its credit, the Ivorian government has consistently accepted refugees and encouraged them to integrate locally rather than placing them in camps.
Nonetheless, on a recent visit to western Cote d'Ivoire, Refugees International found Liberian refugees living in a range of situations, from relatively successful local integration to near abandonment to an organized camp to a transit center. What unifies the experience of Liberians in Cote d'Ivoire is their reluctance to return to their home country, their fear of possible violence in Cote d'Ivoire, and their hope for resettlement in a third country outside the region.

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

Cote d'Ivoire 2005: Peacetown in Guiglo

Some 6,500 Liberian refugees are currently being housed in "Peacetown," the only official refugee camp in Cote d'Ivoire in Nicla, near Guiglo. This camp was opened in 1995 because of concerns for Liberian safety in the wake of renewed conflict. Refugees were pleased with the services they were receiving, such as food rations, health care and vocational training. There is even a computer training center. Yet they voiced concerns about their safety, particularly in light of growing tensions in the west of Cote d'Ivoire. "People say we brought the war to Cote d'Ivoire. We are attacked if we try to go to the bush to gather firewood."

However, most refugees are not prepared to return to Liberia any time soon. One refugee told us that even though things are very unstable in the west of Cote d'Ivoire, he feels ten times better in Peacetown than in Liberia. "I would rather die slowly here in the camp than face instant death in Liberia. Elections will lead to violence, and then I will have to run back here again." The majority of Liberians in Peacetown are hoping for resettlement in a third country.

Cote d'Ivoire 2005: The "Temporary" Transit Camp in Tabou

In stark contrast to the developed community of Peacetown in Guiglo is the Transit Camp in Tabou. The Center, which was originally designed solely for refugees in transit, started housing Liberian refugees in 2002 in response to growing tensions between Liberians and their Ivorian hosts. At that point over 5,000 Liberians flooded the Center. Today the Center is home to close to 2,600 Liberian refugees.

Conditions here are inferior to those in Peacetown. Despite housing refugees for over two years, the Center is not officially designated by the Ivorian government or the UN Refugee Agency as a camp. Families have taken it upon themselves to divide the transit halls into makeshift housing units. There is little in the way of educational or vocational training. Relationships with the surrounding Ivorian villages continue to be tense, and there is practically no communication between the refugees in the Center and those Liberians integrated into the villages. UNHCR and the Caritas camp management are providing, amongst other things, health care, food rations, and wells for the refugees, but these services are being cut back due to pressure surrounding the repatriation process which is now underway. Refugees in the Transit Center liken their condition to a "prison camp."

Cote d'Ivoire 2005: Liberian refugees locally integrating in Prollo village

The majority of Liberian refugees have had to integrate into local villages, with mixed results. In the Tabou region, around 30,000 Liberians are located in over 80 villages. Here in Prollo, a village located on the river that divides Cote d'Ivoire from Liberia, the refugees seemed to be managing relatively well. Because of their location on the border, they receive regular information regarding the situation in Liberia; Liberians even cross over to take part in their Thursday market and to play in their football league.

As these Liberians are not in camps, the assistance they receive is limited to various village-based initiatives including a health clinic, wells and a community center providing non-formal education. However, these programs appear to go a long way in helping to bring together Ivorians and Liberians and to bridge differences. Liberians in Prollo told RI that they were able to come to agreements with the Ivorian leadership in Prollo regarding the right to forage in the bush for food and wood with which to make charcoal. They were upset, however, by what they perceived as a double standard between those in camps who received food assistance and those in villages who had to "fend for themselves."

Cote d'Ivoire 2005: Isolation and desperation in Soublaké village

While the Liberian refugees in Prollo appeared to be able to integrate, the Liberians RI met in the isolated seaside village of Soublaké seemed desperate. They hurriedly whispered their worries to us while we were alone -- they felt under threat, they were not allowed to take jobs, they were forbidden by the villagers to forage in the bush for palm nuts and firewood. According to them, their main source of assistance is Liberian fishermen who approach the shore from time to time to give them fish that they can sell. As soon as Ivorians approached our group they fell silent. The Ivorians too seemed nervous and unsure of the Liberians, although they denied that there were any problems between them and their Liberian "brothers."

Only around 400 Liberians are remaining in Soublaké; most have left to try their luck in other villages. A mobile clinic used to visit Soublaké but services have been discontinued. Unlike in Prollo, there is no sustained program of village-based assistance, due to funding and implementation problems. UNHCR confirmed that many of the Liberians in Soublaké have made an application to move into the Transit Camp in Tabou.

Cote D'Ivoire 2005: The Liberian/Cote d'Ivoire border

The UNHCR barge to transport Liberians across the Cavally River at Prollo village into Maryland county is up and running. Because of the short distance across the river there is a high level of daily village traffic back and forth.

UNHCR has supported the return of several hundred Liberians to Monrovia and the convoy lists for June have been full. UNHCR in Cote d'Ivoire is trying to accelerate returns, scheduling two convoys a week. Unfortunately, due to coordination problems with UNHCR in Liberia, the convoys have been limited to 100 people per convoy as opposed to the expected 250. This has caused restlessness and misunderstandings on the part of those Liberians who have signed up for repatriation but are being forced to wait. When RI visited, Liberians in Prollo expressed their frustration at being bumped off a convoy list, and being forced to wait another month.

The Liberians we spoke to were also a mine of misinformation regarding the repatriation process. Many were excited about voting in the October elections, and were unaware that it was too late for them to register. Others expected to be transported right to their former homes. All of them understood their $5 secondary transportation allowance to be a repatriation allowance, and felt it was unfair in comparison to the $300 received by ex-combatants.

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