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Feature: Refugees rally together at Ghana camp

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ACCRA, Ghana (UNHCR) - From a "hotbed" of crime to a model community, Ghana's Buduburam refugee camp has come a long way as its residents work with local authorities to take charge of their own safety and welfare.
The community's efforts were highlighted recently when the Ghanaian government inaugurated a refugee community mobilisation project at Buduburam to improve the physical safety of camp residents. The mid-February ceremony was attended by the Ghanaian Deputy Minister of the Interior, the Ghana Police Service, the Ghana Refugee Board, as well as UNHCR Representative, Thomas Albrecht.

"Together, UNHCR, our Ghanaian hosts and our partners continue to set a positive example for many refugee situations not only in Africa, but also around the globe," said Albrecht. "With both courage and care, we should now seek to extend this example and prove to all that refugees and host communities can not only live peacefully side by side, but also work together to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for all."

Buduburam camp is located some 35 km west of the capital city, Accra. The camp hosts Ghana's largest concentration of Liberians, with some 28,000 refugees who had fled during the 13 years of unrest in Liberia. More could arrive after fleeing the ongoing crisis in Côte d'Ivoire.

The limited capacity of the local police in Buduburam, coupled with a relative congestion of the camp, had resulted in increased incidents of crime, including several cases of armed robberies and assaults. Throughout Greater Accra, Buduburam was becoming known as a "hotbed" of criminal activity.

In response, camp residents initiated the Neighbourhood Watch Team to patrol the camp at night and enhance police capacity. UNHCR saw this as an invaluable opportunity to assist the camp with security issues and support refugee action.

Today, the Neighbourhood Watch Team has 200 volunteer members, both male and female. The team is guided by a statute, developed with assistance from a UNHCR protection officer, defining the roles and responsibilities of each member and of the organisation as a whole. This statute was accepted by the Ghana Police Service, which screened and trained Team members.

To further support the initiative, UNHCR contributed overalls, raincoats, torch lights, whistles, wooden batons, and boots to all members. It also provided training in the prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence.

Camp manager John Thompson said that the camp's security has greatly improved since the Watch Team patrols started.

Camp resident and chairwoman of the Liberian Refugee Women's Organisation, Irene Jayee, said that before the Watch Team, she had no peace of mind in the camp after dusk. Now, she said, "I can even sleep with my window open."

At the inauguration ceremony, the Neighbourhood Watch Team - dressed in orange overalls and black boots, and equipped with whistles and batons - stood proudly as UNHCR's Albrecht formally introduced their team and their functions to the community.

In addition, the Ghanaian Deputy Minister, the Honourable Kwadwo Afram Asiedu, received UNHCR's donation of communication equipment to the police stationed at Buduburam camp. The donation is part of a partnership between the refugee agency and the Ghanaian police to support and improve security in the camp. UNHCR was also instrumental in the appointment of two female police officers to the camp.

"It is my belief that the radio equipment will help improve the security of the residents of Buduburam camp as well as make the Police more responsive in the performance of their duties," said the Deputy Minister, thanking UNHCR for the donation.

Asiedu also brought a message from the President: "I wish to assure you that the Government of His Excellency, President J. A. Kufuor, will leave no stone unturned in protecting and seeking the welfare of the residents of Buduburam."

The February event was the second time Asiedu had made an official visit to Buduburam in three weeks. He said, "The frequency of our visits to the Buduburam refugee camp shows a rekindling of our relationship with the residents of Buduburam."

In 2000, UNHCR formally ended all individual assistance to Liberian refugees when repatriation efforts intensified. Two years later, the agency returned to Buduburam camp when the situation deteriorated in Liberia. It found that the refugees had done well despite the withdrawal of assistance.

Buduburam is a prime example of refugees' entrepreneurial potential. The camp bustles with commercial activity. Grocery stands, hairdressers, communication centres and small restaurants line the streets.

"I've never seen a refugee camp with an Internet café," said Albrecht. "There are a lot of positive features here."

Buduburam also stands as an example of self-help, and the Neighbourhood Watch Team joins a list of community service-oriented groups working to alleviate the plight of residents.

For instance, the Liberian Welfare Council is an exercise in self-governance, consisting of deputies representing each residential zone. The Council monitors activities, settles disputes, appeals externally for funding and acts as the liaison point with the Ghanaian government.

This exceptional community spirit is also embodied in the 4,700 women residents who have come together to form the Liberian Refugee Women's Organisation. The organisation's raison d'être is to improve camp life for the sake of the children. Members have designed and implemented a waste disposal management system in order to tackle sanitation problems. They also run a training centre for women to acquire marketable skills, and manage a day care centre for children.

The UN refugee agency in Accra has now substantially increased its community-based support to Buduburam camp to complement the many admirable initiatives by the refugee population.

"The exceptional feature about Buduburam camp is the level of self-reliance and community spirit we see amongst the refugees," noted Albrecht. "UNHCR believes that ongoing initiatives such as the Neighbourhood Watch programme and enhanced support for government authorities will continue to ensure the safety and tranquillity of the camp."

By Krista Zongolowicz
UNHCR Ghana