Fears mount that Côte d'Ivoire conflict could spill into Liberia

News Stories, 24 March 2011

© UNHCR/G.Gordon
High Commissioner António Guterres and UN Special Representative Ellen Lój receive flowers as a welcoming gift at the Bahn refugee camp.

MONROVIA, Liberia, March 24 (UNHCR) High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and other senior UN officials warned this week in Monrovia that escalating fighting and massive population displacement in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire threatens Liberia's own fragile eight-year peace.

Citing the violence sweeping Côte d'Ivoire, they warned of the potential for the recruitment by rival Ivorian forces of fighters in Liberia and for the smuggling of weapons across Liberia's porous border.

"It is clear this conflict has to stop," Guterres said after meeting traumatized Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia, where more than 90,000 people have sought shelter since last November's presidential election in Côte d'Ivoire. "The amount of human suffering is horrendous. All neighbouring countries can be dramatically impacted," warned the High Commissioner, who discussed his fears during a meeting on Wednesday with Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Fighting between forces loyal to the rival presidential candidates, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, has picked up dramatically in recent weeks and many fear the country is descending into civil war. There are some 500,000 internally displaced.

Ellen Margrethe Loj, the UN special representative for Liberia who accompanied Guterres and senior Liberian officials to the border area on Tuesday, was also concerned about fighting spilling over into Liberia, which is still struggling to rebuild after two devastating civil wars between 1989 and 2003.

"If we want to keep peace in Liberia, we have to do all that we can to avoid allowing these arms coming across," she stressed, referring to the fears of cross-border arms smuggling. The UN Mission in Liberia, which has helped to keep the peace, has stepped up its military and police presence along the 700-kilometre-long border.

Guterres and Loj flew to Nimba County, where most of the Ivorian refugees have found shelter, either in a camp built by UNHCR at Bahn or in villages along the border. The delegation flew over a vast stretch of lush green jungle; the potential for agricultural development is tremendous, but poor roads, collapsed bridges and a dilapidated infrastructure have held the region back.

In the border village of Buutuo, the visitors gathered in the shade of a communal gazebo to meet community leaders and refugee representatives, who share similar ethnic and tribal backgrounds and connections.

Guterres hailed the inhabitants of Buutuo and other villages in eastern Liberia for their generosity towards the refugees streaming across the border. "In a world full of egotism, where rich countries are closing their doors, you have opened yours and shared what you have, and what you do not have," he said.

"We came empty, with nothing," said one refugee woman, who told the delegation that this was the third time she had been forced to flee from violence in Côte d'Ivoire in the past 10 years. The first time she sought shelter in Ghana, then in Guinea and now she had escaped to Liberia.

Liberia's Interior Affairs Minister Harrison Kahnweah, addressing the group, said: "It is an African tradition that we receive people when they are in need . . . Thank you for receiving your brothers and sisters. We have been there before ourselves."

Thousands of Liberians sought refugee in Côte d'Ivoire during the Liberian civil wars and say they are now committed to returning that generosity. But these host communities need help because their stretched resources are running out.

"There is a conflict potential if nothing is done to replenish what they gave away," said Nimba County Superintendent Edith Gongloe Weh. UNHCR and its partners are working to provide aid to these communities as well as the refugees.

Guterres' visit came amid reports that 6,000 people had fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County, to the south of Nimba, indicating that the fighting in western Côte d'Ivoire may have shifted or spread.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is encouraging refugees to move away from the border and relocate to the Bahn refugee camp or to any of 16 designated host villages. Three additional camps are planned, but their locations will depend on where people are crossing.

Most of the Ivorian refugees are presently living in more than 90 communities along the border, raising concern for their security and hampering UNHCR's ability to deliver aid, a situation which will worsen with the approach of the rainy season.

UNHCR built the camp at Bahn, a five-hour drive from Buutuo on dirt roads, to provide safer accommodation and improved aid humanitarian access. The camp, which has a capacity for 15,000 refugees, provides security, food, water and schooling.

But the majority of refugees still want to stay near the border and as close as possible to their homes. "All we want is to soon return back home," said Mezoud Gaspard, who spoke on behalf of refugees in Buutou.

Guterres, who thanked President Sirleaf for keeping the borders open and for her people's generosity to the Ivorians, flew back to Geneva on Wednesday evening at the end of a three-day visit.

By Melissa Fleming in Buutuo, Liberia