Senegal: returns from Gambia to assess damage

Briefing Notes, 3 July 2001

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 3 July 2001, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Many of the thousands of refugees from Senegal's Casamance province who had fled to southern Gambia are returning to their villages to see if it is safe to go home. Some who have made the trip and then returned to Gambia say they found their houses burned and that they cannot rebuild until the end of the current rainy season. Others say Senegalese troops who have taken up positions in their villages have warned them to stay out of the area.

Over the past two weeks, UNHCR has led several joint missions with NGOs, government officials and other agencies to southern Gambia, visiting dozens of villages where refugees had settled spontaneously after fighting broke out in Senegal's Casamance province last month. They found that many of the host villages were now short on food after sharing their meagre resources with the refugees. The next harvest is not until October.

Fresh fighting broke out in mid-May between Senegalese government forces and rebels of the separatist MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance), driving over 3,500 refugees from their homes in Casamance over a three-week period. Most of the refugees settled in dozens of small villages along Gambia's southern border.

Days later, some 2,000 refugees had returned voluntarily to their homes just across the border. Gambian authorities had asked UNHCR to transfer the remaining refugees, numbering about 1,500, to a transit camp 70 km north of the border. But the refugees have been reluctant to move out of the border zone, preferring to stay as close to their home villages as possible.

The conflict in Casamance has simmered since 1982, with several attempts at a cease-fire breaking down because of claims for independence among hard-liners. The overall situation on the border was reported calm this week. Fighting between different MFDC factions was reported near the Senegal/ Guinea Bissau border but so far this has not affected UNHCR operations.

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 are from Sierra Leone.