Liberian refugees in limbo in West Africa

Liberian refugees are fleeing civil conflict at home and facing rising hostilities in Côte d'Ivoire. Some 1,800 have fled fighting in northern Liberia for Sierra Leone while tens of thousands are desperate to leave strife-torn Ivorian cities in the south and west.

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.   © UNHCR/A.Van Genderen Stort

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.