McAskie, accompanied by heads of UN agencies in Liberia, visited Saclepea transit centre, which UNHCR plans to transform shortly into a refugee camp. Located in the eastern Liberian town of Saclepea, the centre currently holds about 200 Ivorian refugees. UNHCR and its partners - which include Medecins sans frontieres and the World Food Programme - say the site could host up to 3,000 displaced. As a refugee camp, it could shelter some 10,000 persons.
McAskie, who visited shelters, sanitary installations and therapeutic feeding centers, asked the refugees about their living conditions, the difficulties they faced and what the UN and the international community could do to help. Representatives of the refugees appealed to return to Cote d'Ivoire so that, as one young woman said, they could be "with their families" back home. They also mentioned their food and non-food needs.
McAskie told them that she had gone to hear their stories so that she could "bring their suffering to the eyes of the world". She pledged to lobby the UN and others on behalf of Ivorian refugees, Liberians returnees and third-country nationals affecting by the crisis.
As at 21 January, a total of 69,370 refugees and returnees had been registered and "their numbers were still increasing", UNHCR said. The figure included 39,204 Liberian returnees; 25,081 Ivorian refugees and 5,445 third-country nationals, the vast majority of whom were from Burkina Faso.
"The real numbers of returnees and refugees may be much higher since it is impossible to control all entry points," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in a briefing note.
Passing through villages along rough, dusty roads, the mission travelled to Karnplay, 76 km north of Saclepea and home to Liberians, Ivorians, Burkinabes and Sierra Leoneans who recently fled fighting in western Cote d'Ivoire. Karnplay is one of four transit centres that UNHCR has opened since the beginning of the Ivorian conflict.
Representatives of each community told the UN envoy of a 28 November attack in western Cote d'Ivoire that led them to run away. They appealed for food and other supplies, including medicine for pregnant and nursing women, and said they wanted to return eventually to their home countries.
McAskie, who was accompanied by the head of Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, assured the displaced that the UN agencies in Liberia would do all they could to help and that she would appeal for aid for them.
The UN envoy also held meetings with government officials, NGOs and foreign delegations such as the United States embassy in the capital, Monrovia.
Upon arrival on Saturday, after a one-day visit to Burkina Faso, McAskie met the UN Country Team [representatives of the various UN agencies working in the country] which expressed concern for Liberia and insisted that the international community needed to remain focused on the country, where new problems could occur with presidential and general elections scheduled for October.
UNHCR's representative Moses Okello said the Ivorian crisis had created "the existence of a temptation to forget Liberia" which, with 80 percent of its population living in poverty and an even high number unemployed, remains a key player in the peace and security of West Africa. "The Security Council must refocus on Liberia in a sustained manner," the acting head of the UN Peace Building Office in Liberia said.
On Friday McAskie discussed with the UN country team in Burkina Faso the impact of the Ivorian crisis on that country. She met President Blaise Compaore who made several recommendations to her, including that the UN should support the agreement Ivorian parties signed in late January in Paris.
McAskie, who is travelling with Besida Tonwe, head of OCHA's Abidjan-based Regional Support Office, was due in Guinea later on Monday.
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