UNHCR working to help conclude three African refugee situations

Briefing Notes, 7 February 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 February 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is implementing a set of comprehensive strategies aimed at closing three of Africa's longstanding refugee situations, namely those involving Angolan, Liberian and Rwandan refugees.

These strategies-which were first announced in 2009 by the High Commissioner to UNHCR's governing body, the Executive Committee- aim at finding solutions for as many Angolan, Liberian and Rwandan refugees as possible, be it in their countries of origin or asylum.

Solutions include scaled up voluntary repatriation together with assistance packages to help former refugees reintegrate, or securing an alternative legal status that would allow them to continue to reside in the country of asylum. After decades in exile, many Angolan, Liberian and Rwandan refugees have established strong ties with their host communities, including through marriage. UNHCR hopes that countries of asylum will convert refugee status into residency permits for such persons, including ultimately citizenship when domestic legislation allows. In West Africa, for example, Liberians can obtain residence and work permits, allowing them to remain in the country of asylum as ECOWAS citzens.

Cessation clauses are built into the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention. They allow refugee status to end once fundamental and durable changes have taken place in the country of origin and the circumstances that led to refugee flight no longer exist. This is the case for all three countries of orgin. UNHCR recommends that cessation apply for Angolan refugees who fled the country as a result of the conflicts between 1961 and 2002; for Liberian refugees who fled the civil wars from 1989 and 2003; and for Rwandan refugees who fled between 1959 and 1998.

The application of cessation by States does not mean that all Angolan, Liberian and Rwandan refugees automatically lose their refugee status or that the countries of origin no longer produce any refugees. Cessation will not apply to refugees who still have well-founded fear of persecution, nor to refugees who have compelling reasons for not wanting to go back home because of past persecution. UNHCR is working closely with governments to protect asylum rights in these cases, even as we implement the comprehensive strategies. Cessation would also not apply to any Angolan, Liberian or Rwandan refugees who have pending asylum claims.

Furthermore, UNHCR appeals to governments to properly and fully determine all new or pending claims by Angolans, Liberians and Rwandans fairly, regardless of when they were filed.

UNHCR recommends that States continue to implement all aspects of the comprehensive strategies leading to cessation of refugee status by 30 June 2012 for Angolans and Liberians, and by 30 June 2013 for Rwandans. In Angola, 40 years of conflict that displaced millions of Angolans, finally ended in a lasting peace agreement in 2002. While the majority of Angolan refugees have since returned to their country of origin, more than 131,000 remain in exile, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Almost half of them have indicated their wish to return to Angola.

In Liberia, a period of civil wars that started in 1989 ended in 2003, with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the departure of then-president Charles Taylor from office. The conflicts claimed 200,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Liberians. While the majority of the Liberian refugees have returned home, some 63,000 remain in exile, mainly in Côte d'Ivoire.

In Rwanda, peace and stability have essentially prevailed since 1999. The vast majority of Rwandans refugees fled as a result of the 1994 genocide and its aftermath, including armed clashes in northwestern Rwanda in 1997 and 1998, the last time the country experience generalized violence. Over the past years, the majority of Rwandan refugees have returned to Rwanda, but close to 100,000 still remain in exile in some forty countries, mainly in Africa.

UNHCR stresses the importance of bringing protracted refugee situations to an end so that refugees can resume their normal lives. It is incumbent upon the international community to invest in a decent closure of longstanding refugee situations. Assisting these refugees in finding solutions will also help prevent larger mixed migrations movements.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

In Dakar: Helene Caux on mobile +221 77 333 12 91

In Geneva: Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba on mobile +41 79 249 3483

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The number of refugees of concern to UNHCR stood at 10.4 million at the beginning of 2012, down slightly from a year earlier.

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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.

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Refugees prepare for winter in Jordan's Za'atri camp

Life in Jordan's Za'atri refugee camp is hard. Scorching hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, this flat, arid patch of land near the border with Syria was almost empty when the camp opened in July. Today, it hosts more than 31,000 Syrians who have fled the conflict in their country.

The journey to Jordan is perilous. Refugees cross the Syrian-Jordan border at night in temperatures that now hover close to freezing. Mothers try to keep their children quiet during the journey. It is a harrowing experience and not everyone makes it across.

In Za'atri, refugees are allocated a tent and given sleeping mats, blankets and food on arrival. But as winter approaches, UNHCR is working with partners to ensure that all refugees will be protected from the elements. This includes upgrading tents and moving the most vulnerable to prefabricated homes, now being installed.

Through the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNHCR has also distributed thousands of winter kits that include thermal liners, insulated ground pads and metal sheeting to build sheltered kitchen areas outside tents. Warmer clothes and more blankets will also be distributed where needed.

Refugees prepare for winter in Jordan's Za'atri camp

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Many Malaysians are astonished to learn that there are refugees living in their country. That's how invisible most of the 67,800 refugees in Malaysian towns and cities are. They don't live in camps, but in low-cost flats and houses alongside the homes of Malaysians. The refugees, overwhelmingly from Myanmar, live in tight-knit groups with as many as 20 or 30 people in one small flat.

As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

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