Gambian border villages flooded with refugees from Senegal

News Stories, 23 August 2006

BANJUL, Gambia, August 23 (UNHCR) More than 4,500 people have fled to Gambia from southern Senegal in the past few days amid rising tension in the country's volatile Casamance region.

The UN refugee agency is concerned at the latest influx, which has swamped villages on the Gambian border and adds to the 1,600 people who fled across the border during the first six months of the year. UNHCR staff visited the villages of Gifanga and Kusumai and reported that the refugees outnumbered the local population.

The Casamance area, located south of Gambia, has been the scene of sporadic fighting between the Senegalese armed forces and the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance since 1982. Reports say the government has launched a fresh offensive.

Host families have taken in many of the new arrivals, but they cannot cope with any more and the local authorities have been forced to open a school and a training centre to house the refugees.

The village chief in Gifanga told UNHCR he had asked neighbouring areas to help out because he had no more households left to assign for shelter and assistance. The refugees want to remain close to the border, despite the risk of stray fire, so that they can return home quickly once the security situation returns to normal.

Food is another concern. The refugees brought very little with them, while the local population does not have enough to share. "We are in the middle of the rainy season and the new crops have just been planted. Food reserves from last year would have been exhausted by this time of year," explained Ron Mponda, UNHCR chief of mission in Gambia. "The local population already had to share its food reserves with other refugees since this year's arrivals started in mid-January," he added.

UNHCR, which is planning another mission to the most affected regions before the end of the week, is considering the distribution of one-time food assistance and improvement of sanitation in the communal shelters. The refugee agency will also deploy another emergency officer to Gambia.

There are currently some 12,500 refugees in Gambia, including the latest arrivals. About half are from Sierra Leone, while some Liberian refugees remain in the country.