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Liberian refugees in limbo in West Africa

News Stories, 14 February 2003

© UNHCR/A.Van Genderen Stort
Some of the lucky Liberian refugees who have been able to leave Tabou for home with UNHCR assistance. Many more cannot return to Liberia for a variety of reasons.

ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, Feb 14 (UNHCR) Tens of thousands of Liberian refugees in West Africa are in limbo as fighting breaks out at home and harassment intensifies in Côte d'Ivoire. Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has reiterated its appeal for regional governments to accommodate Liberians who cannot return home despite the Ivorian crisis.

Over the past week, heightened fighting in northern Liberia has sent an exodus of Liberians to Sierra Leone. On Thursday, 1,800 Liberian refugees were reported to have arrived in the Sierra Leonean towns of Gendema and Sulima. Several thousand more are expected to follow.

But for some Liberian refugees, safety is no longer guaranteed even in their country of asylum. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of them are believed to be caught in the five-month-old civil conflict in Côte d'Ivoire.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 150 Liberians mostly women and children staged a demonstration in front of UNHCR's office in Abidjan, southern Côte d'Ivoire, to demand for immediate evacuation. They protested against the deteriorating security situation in the country, and the increasing harassment by Ivorian combatants and the local community.

A small delegation of the demonstrators met with UNHCR staff and a government representative, who listened to their concerns and shared with them the actions taken by the refugee agency.

In western Côte d'Ivoire, 7,000 terrified Liberians remain stranded at Nicla refugee camp, unable to return home because of their ethnic background and known opposition to the Liberian government.

In December, UNHCR had made an appeal for regional governments to grant temporary asylum to these stranded Liberian refugees, but this has so far gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, in Tabou, south-western Côte d'Ivoire, some 2,200 Liberian refugees have already gone home in UNHCR's ongoing emergency repatriation. Many others have returned to Liberia spontaneously, along with Ivorian refugees and immigrant workers from countries like Burkina Faso and Mali. Some of the latter are in transit, unable to proceed to their home countries because of insecurity. UNHCR is helping them in the absence of other relief agencies in the area.

Since fighting broke out in Côte d'Ivoire last September, some 88,000 people 35,000 Ivorian refugees, 43,000 Liberian returnees and the rest immigrant workers have entered Liberia, which is itself caught in a civil conflict.

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New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

UNHCR has expressed its mounting concern about civilians trapped in the Abobo district of Cote d'Ivoire's commercial centre, Abidjan, following days of fierce fighting between forces loyal to rival presidential candidates. The situation there remains grim. Many of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Abobo have fled, but armed groups are reportedly preventing others from leaving. UNHCR is particularly concerned about vulnerable people, such as the sick and the elderly, who may not be able to leave.

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

Liberia: A Neighbour's HelpPlay video

Liberia: A Neighbour's Help

Alphonse Gonglegbe fled to Liberia with his family a few months ago. He appreciates the help he's been receiving in this land neighbouring his native Côte d'Ivoire.
Liberia: Hurried FlightPlay video

Liberia: Hurried Flight

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled their villages and sought shelter in Liberia. Francis says he ran for his life and now he wants safety and food.
Liberia: Arrival at Bahn CampPlay video

Liberia: Arrival at Bahn Camp

UNHCR has opened a new camp for up to 15,000 Ivorian refugees at Bahn in eastern Liberia. Follow the arrival of the first group.