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Liberia: Situation dire; UNHCR urges suspension of forced returns

Briefing notes

Liberia: Situation dire; UNHCR urges suspension of forced returns

25 July 2003

The situation in Liberia is grave. UNHCR's compound in Monrovia is now jammed with more than 800 desperate and hungry refugees and displaced. Every available space is taken in the compound, which has also been hit by stray gunfire. Fortunately, those crowded there have so far escaped injury. Even members of our own staff are now displaced, with three of them reporting yesterday that they had lost everything but the clothes on their backs after their homes were looted.

Since the outbreak of fresh fighting a week ago, we have not been able to make any contact with thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who were in Samukai and Banjor camps on the outskirts of the capital. The fate of thousands of displaced people in other parts of the country also remains unknown. They have been without basic assistance for months following the suspension of most aid operations because of insecurity.

Those huddled in the UNHCR compound in the Mamba Point area of Monrovia include more than 600 Sierra Leonean refugees who earlier fled their camps on the outskirts of the city, and at least 160 Liberians and nationals of other West African nations. Many of them fled into the UNHCR premises on Monday after a mortar shell hit the nearby U.S. residential compound, killing and wounding scores of people. Two more people were reported killed in the area on Wednesday.

Many of the 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living in four camps around the capital have been awaiting evacuation in a temporarily suspended UNHCR emergency sealift that began on July 4. The ship, the MV Overbeck, had to return empty to Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Monday because it was unable to dock safely in Monrovia. So far, the Overbeck has evacuated 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees in four voyages. As soon as the security situation allows, UNHCR international staff will return to Monrovia and the Overbeck will resume the emergency evacuation of Sierra Leoneans.

Once again, the High Commissioner urges the immediate deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Liberia - a call he first made in mid-May while on mission to Liberia and four other West African states. At the time, Mr. Lubbers had also suggested the possible use of some UNAMSIL forces in neighbouring Sierra Leone. We understand that Nigeria is now considering deployment of some of its troops currently serving in UNAMSIL. We hope something is done soon because hundreds of thousands of people are in grave danger in Liberia and we need to do something now.

In the meantime, given the extreme gravity of the situation in Liberia, UNHCR is recommending to governments that they suspend the forced return of rejected Liberian asylum seekers for at least six months. Canada already announced such a suspension on Wednesday. In an advisory to governments sent this week, UNHCR notes that the spiralling conflict has provoked large-scale population displacement and a complete breakdown of law and order throughout the country. Outside the capital, large parts of the civilian population - many of them displaced - are now without access to even the most basic social and economic amenities and emergency aid. There are also numerous reports documenting gross and systematic human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual violence and abuse, disappearances, and arbitrary detention under extremely harsh conditions.

We are also asking governments within the West African region to continue to recognise Liberians as refugees as provided for under the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention, which they have all signed. In other areas outside Africa where the OAU Convention is not applicable, we are calling on governments to undertake careful screening of Liberian asylum seekers.

The recommendations note that given the continuing violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law and the targetting of civilians by all parties to the conflict, many Liberians may indeed qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention. And it says those not recognised as refugees should still be considered favourably for complementary forms of protection.