More than 35,000 Liberian refugees that
remain in the Ivory Coast are in imminent danger of being caught in the
conflict in the west or targeted by the military and armed local youth.
These Liberian refugees, who sought refuge in the Ivory Coast over the
last decade, are again in need of a safe haven.
In one area of the country Refugees International spoke with dozens of Liberians who are being terrorized by gangs of armed young men, calling themselves members of the Patriotic Youth. Liberian refugee testimony included the following accounts:
"Any time they (the Patriotic Youth) see you, they take your card and detain you. Sometimes you're lucky if you are given over to the Ivoirian military because you might be let go. Other times, people disappear. The local Ivoirians are on the side of the youth. From the time the locals heard Liberians were coming to the Ivory Coast to fight, they started hating us, even though we as refugees have lived here peacefully for many years."
"My mom died in the war in Liberia and I cannot find my father. I'm sixteen and I can no longer go to school here. We are afraid of the local youths that are killing people. Last weekend some of them beat me. The Ivory Coast is not safe for the Liberian refugees. They say we are the ones fighting in the Ivory Coast."
"I left Liberia in 1993 because I was attacked by Charles Taylor's rebels. I was taken to jail, tied up, hung upside down, and hot peppers were stuck in my mouth. They burned cigarettes into my back and put hot coals on my private parts. I escaped with much difficulty and ran to the Ivory Coast. My story is just one; there are many of us here that cannot go back to Liberia. But I cannot stay here either. Last night my house was surrounded by the youth. They threatened me and had guns pointed at my chest. My little girl cried all night. They left in the morning but I don't know when they'll come again and I'll disappear."
"The only solution is to get the Liberians out of here. We have been told that when the military sees us, they don't know which Liberians are refugees and which are rebels and that we will all be slaughtered. If one day any Liberian rebels come here we will be killed definitely. I personally know of five people who disappeared. Two of the bodies were found. The Ivoirian youth said we're all dead bodies."
The Patriotic Youth consists of boys and young men without prior military training. They responded to calls from Ivoirian President Gbagbo and village chiefs to protect their country. Part of their response to the request has been to commit human rights abuses against foreigners, especially Liberians. The armed youth are menacing; they blacken their faces with charcoal, tote rifles, and stop vehicles at their checkpoints. RI heard from many different sources that the police, gendarmes, and local authorities have no control over them.
The Ivoirian military has also targeted refugees, accusing them of being associated with anti-government rebels. Because components of the anti-government rebel forces operating in the western part of the country indeed enlisted Liberians, the Liberian refugees make natural and easy targets of the government military. The military has beaten, arrested, and forcibly recruited Liberian refugees. Refugees continue to report that they know of neighbors and friends who have disappeared. The bodies are sometimes found days later.
In attempting to provide protection for Liberian refugees in the Ivory Coast, UNHCR has assisted almost 2,500 Liberians to voluntarily repatriate back to Liberia. The agency continues to register people for voluntary return, but for many refugees this is simply not an option due to a credible fear of experiencing persecution and violence should they return.
For many Liberian refugees, the only plausible option is to find a safe place elsewhere in the Ivory Coast. While a few laudable Ivoirian government officials have accepted their responsibility to protect refugees, many others have stated publicly that they will not accept refugees in their areas. Refugees International supports the recommendation of Amnesty International in its report on February 20, 2003: "The Ivoirian authorities must take immediate measures to end attacks on Liberian refugees and cooperate fully with UNHCR to finding safer locations for Liberian refugees." Refugees have already been killed in the Ivory Coast. The international community, including the Government of the Ivory Coast, must assist UNHCR in finding a safe haven for these refugees before more lives are lost.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
- The Government of the Ivory Coast publicly disavows the actions of the Young Patriots and other armed civilian groups and takes immediate steps to disarm them.
- The Government of the Ivory Coast identifies new safe locations for Liberian refugees and cooperates with UNHCR in facilitating the transport of the refugees to these new locations.
- African and Western nations share the responsibility of offering asylum to Liberian refugees.
- Donor governments support UNHCR Ivory Coast in its efforts to protect and assist refugees.