High Commissioner to visit West Africa
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers tomorrow begins a nine-day mission to five West African states, starting in Guinea where UNHCR and its partners are struggling to help hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and displaced people.
Mr. Lubbers arrives in Conakry on Saturday evening and the next morning is scheduled to travel to the Kissidougou area to see UNHCR's field operations first-hand. Kissidougou has been a base of operations in our efforts to try to provide help to an estimated 250,000 refugees and displaced Guineans in the south-west of the country around the embattled town of Guéckédou.
Those efforts were set back temporarily again yesterday (Thursday) when fighting reportedly erupted near Guéckédou, forcing UNHCR to suspend for the day an ongoing operation to move thousands of refugees away from insecure border areas to new camps further inland in the Kissidougou area. We will try again today.
Yesterday, a UNHCR convoy of several trucks was stopped by Guinean troops about 10 km before Nyaedou camp, which is 15 km north of Guéckédou. There are an estimated 30,000 refugees in the camp who need to be moved inland - an operation that is expected to take a month. Several hundred refugees were supposed to be picked up from Nyaedou for transport to a new camp in Albadaria. However, military officials said fighting near Guéckédou prevented the relocation convoy from proceeding and it returned to Kissidougou empty.
Later in the day, the fighting around Guéckédou halted and a small UNHCR medical and information team was able to travel to Nyaedou, where they found about 1,000 newly arrived refugees. The refugees said they came from Kamayan camp, about 5 km north-west of Guéckédou, and reported that Kamayan had been set on fire - allegedly by neighbouring Guinean villagers. The refugees reported hearing heavy fighting in Guéckédou yesterday morning.
Kamayan was one of many mid-sized camps in Guéckédou Prefecture and was holding 3,600 refugees. The whereabouts of the other refugees are unknown, along with tens of thousands of others we have been unable to reach in scores of camps in the south-west.
Since the beginning of the relocation operation on Tuesday, UNHCR has moved 675 refugees from Nyaedou to Albadaria, starting with the most vulnerable people. The frightened refugees, caught between the ongoing conflict and an increasingly hostile local population, are complaining that the relocation is too slow. As of today (Friday), UNHCR will have 15 trucks available for the transport of around a thousand refugees daily, security conditions allowing.
The trucks take about six hours to cover some 200 km - some of it over very bad roads and difficult river crossings. Guinean troops inspect the personal belongings carried by the refugees and screen all of them to ensure there are no armed elements among them.
The camp in Albadaria offers shelter, water and sanitation facilities. Another two camps are under construction in the same region for the eventual relocation of up to 60,000 refugees from Nyaedou camp and other vulnerable camps in the Guéckédou area.
Guéckédou Prefecture, bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, is the most heavily populated refugee area in the whole of Guinea, with some 295,000 refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. The region has been under attack since last September, causing thousands of refugees and local Guineans to flee northwards in search of safety. An estimated 180,000 refugees and 70,000 Guineans are believed still to be stranded in the Parrot's Beak region jutting into Sierra Leone and inaccessible to humanitarian aid.
High Commissioner Lubbers will stay in Guinea until Tuesday, when he travels to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for a two-day stay that will include visits to returnee transit centres and meetings with government, embassy, U.N., NGO and other representatives. On Thursday, he travels to Monrovia, Liberia, and then on to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in the evening. He will remain in Côte d'Ivoire until Sunday, when he travels to Bamako, Mali, for a two-day visit that will include the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Economic Community of West African States.