Refugees flee to Gambia from Casamance province, Senegal

Press Releases, 23 May 2001

GENEVA More than 2,200 people have fled to Gambia in the past few days following an upsurge of fighting in the neighbouring Senegalese province of Casamance, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

The first group of refugees reportedly crossed into southern Gambia on May 18. The same day, UNHCR staff and officials from the Gambia Immigration Department travelled down to the border, some 200 kms south-east of the capital, Banjul, to assess the situation.

The influx of refugees comes amid reports of intensified fighting in Casamance Province between government forces and rebels of the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC).

The majority of those fleeing the fighting so far have been women and children. UNHCR staff on the border reported that the refugees were exhausted, but appeared generally to be in good health.

The refugees say they fled from villages in the northern part of the troubled Casamance region after government troops launched a search operation for rebels. The refugees believed the search operation would continue for several more days and said it was likely more people would be displaced. Gambian border authorities confirmed Tuesday that more refugees were streaming into the small West African nation.

Over the weekend, UNHCR began transferring the refugees from a makeshift site to a transit camp at Kwinella, in Kiang Province, some 70 kms north of the border. The refugees have received initial assistance from UNHCR, the World Food Programme and the Gambian Red Cross Society.

The civil conflict in Senegal's southern Casamance Province began in 1982 and has simmered on since then, sometimes erupting into all-out war. It is one of Africa's "forgotten" civil conflicts. Several peace agreements between the government of Senegal and the separatist MFDC rebels have broken down in the past, with hard-line elements in the MFDC insisting on independence from Dakar.

UNHCR cares for 12,400 refugees in the Gambia, including 1,675 from Senegal who arrived before the recent upsurge in fighting. The majority of the refugees in the country are from Sierra Leone.