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Getting connected in Liberia's largest refugee camp
Making a Difference, 17 June 2014
PTP REFUGEE CAMP, Liberia, June 17 (UNHCR) – When a mobile phone tower was recently erected at UNHCR's request in Liberia's largest refugee camp, people were so happy that they danced for hours in the remote site. Many of the 15,000 Ivorian refugees in the PTP camp, like 36-year-old Jaine, had mobile phones but there was no signal in their isolated location in the east of the country.
Jaine had spent more than three years in Liberia with one child worrying about the fate of her husband and a daughter aged 11 years. They had become separated when they fled across the border to escape post-election violence that erupted in Côte d'Ivoire in late 2010, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
But with phone coverage extended to the camp in April, Jaine was able to call, tracking them down in Ghana. "I am very happy that I have spoken with them," she said, adding that she had been "praying to see my family again."
Since the mobile phone tower was switched on, many refugees have been phoning relatives and friends back in Côte d'Ivoire, asking how the situation is. This is affecting decisions on whether or not to return to their country, which has been largely peaceful since 2011. UNHCR has helped nearly 10,000 Ivorians to return voluntarily to Côte d'Ivoire since January, but some 42,000 remain in Liberia, down from a peak of 220,000 in 2011.
Only the most determined refugees in Gedeh County's PTP camp were able to use their mobile phones before the new tower was constructed. They had to either climb to the top of tall trees or hike to hilly areas in search of a signal. Many of the younger refugees used their phones to play music they had downloaded in Côte d'Ivoire.
The lack of a phone signal at the PTP camp had also affected the workings of aid organizations, including UNHCR, whose staff had to rely on radio communications to stay in contact with headquarters and field offices while on mission. Now they can make a quick call, and the signal also allows for Internet access, benefitting aid workers and the refugees.
Fatima Mohammed, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Gedeh County, hailed the development, saying it would make her work easier and enhance security and protection. "We are happy that we have no more "no network" she laughed.
The new telecommunications tower was installed at the camp by the Monrovia-based Lonestar Cell MTN company at the request of UNHCR.
By Sulaiman Momodu in PTP Refugee Camp, Liberia