Stuck in war-torn Liberia after fleeing fighting in western Ivory Coast, thousands of people who should be safe in their home countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Benin, and Senegal are waiting for a ride home. Several months ago, an estimated 43,000 people fled the Ivory Coast and entered Liberia and Guinea. Since then, many more thousands have fled and continue to arrive in neighboring Liberia. In addition to more than 20,000 Ivoirian refugees and almost 45,000 Liberian returnees, Liberia has received at least 12,000 nationals of third countries, with the majority being from Burkina Faso.
These third country nationals (TCNs) are in UNHCR transit centers and surrounding villages in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. The major town in the county, Zwedru, and its border areas are hosting more than 21,000 refugees and thousands of TCNs, including more than 4,000 in a UNHCR Transit Center. The security situation in Zwedru town, the County as a whole, and the transit centers is tenuous. The fighting in western Ivory Coast is only a few kilometers away. Grand Gedeh County has the greatest movement of militia back and forth between the Ivory Coast and Liberia. The rebels that forced these people to flee are often seen in Liberia. These are the same rebels, according to RI's interviews with refugees and TCNs, who have been slitting people's throats, burning people alive in their homes, and using young girls as sex slaves and servants. One man was able to quietly identify one of the rebels present in the Transit Camp to an RI representative. Other people whose belongings had been stolen in the Ivory Coast now see their personal items for sale in local markets throughout Grand Gedeh.
One UN official explained why people in Grand Gedeh County are terrified: "Third country nationals are scared. Militias and military are moving into place. The TCNs have been there over two months and they have to be moved. There is no agency working to move them out of there." The TCNs understand that their legal status is nebulous. One man said, "We've been in these conditions for two months and we don't have a definition for our human rights; we're not refugees." UNHCR is being generous with food and shelter, but UNHCR does not have the mandate or the funding to care for these people. UNHCR struggles to assist the Liberian returnees and Ivoirian refugees that recently arrived, in addition to assisting 17,000 Sierra Leonean refugees that are still in the country. The agency with the clear mandate to assist the TCNs is the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Unfortunately, IOM is not present in the country, has made no visits to Liberia to plan for the transit of the third country nationals, and has not received the funding necessary to complete the transit.
Most third country nationals were living in the Ivory Coast for many years working in the coffee and cacao plantations. Some of the younger ones were born there but kept their original nationality and/or had duel citizenship. When they fled, most of them lost everything. A man from Burkina Faso reported, "In order to leave and not be killed, I gave 400,000 CFA (approximately 670 USD) to the rebels. The rebels spoke both French and English. We've been in the transit center for 17 days, but only received a one-week ration. Plus, not all of us received blankets, mats and jerry cans." They have no money to buy anything, much less a bus ride, even if they could cross through Guinea and find a way home. A group of third country nationals had to pay more than 16,000 USD, an entire life's savings, to save their families' lives.
The migrants enjoyed their life in the Ivory Coast but are uncertain about their future there and now just want to go home. A Burkinabe told RI, "Every night we hear the noises of fighting. We sleep in the bush at night. We want peace in the Ivory Coast, but we're afraid to go back because they think we're assassins and rebels. If I go back and they know I'm a Burkinabe, then I know I will be killed."
Most of the TCNs were headed to Guinea for a safe transit home to Burkina Faso or other countries in the region by transiting through Liberia, but Guinea recently closed its border to prevent a continued influx. RI spoke with the Malian Ambassador to Guinea, who was visiting some 1,000 Malian citizens who were sleeping on the ground in the open air. The Malian Government was trying to find the means to move people home, but it does not have the necessary resources. The Government of Guinea would be more likely to open its borders to the evacuation of more third country nationals if there were able to count on an organized transit operation out of the country.
Donors must immediately respond with funding to move these vulnerable people to their home countries. In two months, the rainy season will make roads in Liberia and Guinea impassable and these people will then be stuck in war-torn Liberia for many months. Further, the rainy season will make the health situation even more tenuous. Already, meningitis has killed several people, and there is risk of a yellow fever outbreak in addition to widespread malaria and growing malnutrition. RI visited MSF-France's Therapeutic Feeding Center in Zwedru. There were 23 severely malnourished people in the center, and by the end of the week, that number had doubled.
Considering the high insecurity, inadequate assistance, the approach of the rainy season, and the fact that these people have safe countries to which they can return, Refugees International recommends that:
- Donors immediately provide funding to IOM to move the third country nationals stranded in Liberia and Guinea.
- IOM immediately move staff and resources to Liberia to start the transit of TCNs.
- UNHCR receive the mandate and funding to transit TCNs out of Liberia and Guinea if IOM does not immediately begin planning and executing this transit.
- Donors increase funding to the UN agencies and NGOs that are providing assistance to TCNs, refugees and returnees, and who are working with minimal resources in both Liberia and Guinea.