As some 30,000 flee to Liberia, UNHCR urges help for civilians in besieged Abidjan district

News Stories, 1 March 2011

© UNHCR/H.Caux
Some of the thousands of people who have fled the Abobo neighbourhood of Abidjan by foot. This group took advantage of a lull in the fighting between rival groups at the weekend to escape.

GENEVA, March 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday reiterated its mounting concern about citizens trapped in a conflict-torn district of Côte d'Ivoire's commercial hub, Abidjan. Some 30,000 Ivorians have fled to Liberia since fresh fighting erupted about a week ago in the northern suburb of Abobo and other parts of the country. In Liberia, they join some 40,000 refugees.

Weeks of simmering tension have boiled over between supporters of the main rivals in November's presidential election, which both sides claimed to have won. Last Friday, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres appealed for a halt to the fighting in Abidjan so that civilians could be allowed to leave.

"Today we are repeating that call. There must be no targeting of civilians. All efforts must be made to prevent civilians being placed in harm's way," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

UNHCR staff in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d'Ivoire, said the situation in Abobo remains grim. The district is home to an estimated 1.5 million people. Many have already fled, but armed groups are reportedly preventing others from leaving.

"Of particular concern to us are the risks for people who may have difficulties with moving, including the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women," said Fleming, adding that "as of yesterday, people were still fleeing Abobo, taking advantage of a brief lull in fighting."

Church authorities in Côte d'Ivoire said some 60 families, mainly women and children, were trapped in a church in Abobo where they were being prevented from leaving by armed men. They have no food, no water and no sanitary facilities, and dead bodies are said to be lying nearby.

UNHCR monitoring teams, which have been present on the outskirts of Abobo, have heard other reports of people being prevented from leaving the areas of fighting. Some families have been forced to hand over money or personal possessions to be allowed to leave. There are reports of many dead bodies, buses burned and shops looted, and of young militiamen attacking people inside their homes.

Those who have already made it out are having to contend with rising transportation costs as thousands of families try to board taxis, buses or private cars to reach safer neighbourhoods or their home villages. Taxi drivers are reported to be refusing to take people to some destinations in other parts of the city because of reports of gunfire over the weekend.

Separately, in western Côte d'Ivoire most of the 9,000 internally displaced people at the Catholic mission in the town of Duekoue have left out of fear of new conflict. The camp UNHCR was planning to build in the area is now on hold.

In Liberia, UNHCR is responding to the escalating influx with plans for a second camp. "We are also increasing our capacity to transfer people to the 15 designated villages or to the existing Bahn camp, where there are basic services such as health care, education and clean water," Fleming said.

The majority of refugees in Liberia are still hosted in more than 76 border villages, most of which are in remote, inaccessible locations.

By Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba in Geneva and Hélène Caux in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire




UNHCR country pages

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: Settling InPlay video

Liberia: Settling In

A dozen new shelters are built every day in Liberia's Bahn refugee camp. Eventually there will be 3,000 shelters for some of the many civilians who have fled from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.