Concern grows over situation of Ivorian refugees in Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 9 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is growing increasingly concerned about the fate of thousands of Ivorian refugees scattered along Liberia's eastern border with Côte d'Ivoire, as widespread lawlessness and alarming rumours continue to fuel displacement, and hamper relief efforts, elsewhere in the country.
The UNHCR office in the coastal town of Tabou, just over the border in Côte d'Ivoire, has received credible reports from local aid agency staff who crossed into Liberia, that the town of Harper has been severely looted. UNHCR has also received worrying reports that people in the Harper area and elsewhere in eastern Liberia may have suffered from various forms of harassment and sexual violence.
The local staff who crossed over to Harper reported that everything in Harper and the border town of Plebo, down to the doors and window frames, has been looted by the fighters. Whatever has not been looted has been destroyed.
"It is looking very likely that the reconstruction and reintegration of returnees in this part of Liberia will be a major task," said Anne Dolan, head of the UNHCR office in Tabou.
The refugee agency is currently exploring possible ways of accessing this part of Liberia with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN coordination agency, OCHA, as well as quickly reactivating its offices as soon as the security situation permits. Different options being examined include mounting operations overland from Côte d'Ivoire, or by sea from the Liberian capital Monrovia, and a number of discussions have been held with MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) representatives who have shown willingness to assist efforts to gain access to the border areas under MODEL's control.
Before the murder of three NGO staff in February, and subsequent upsurge in violence and mayhem across Liberia, UNHCR had been taking care of some 38,000 Ivorian refugees who were living in transit centres or in local villages throughout eastern Liberia, in addition to 45,000 Liberian returnees and 15,000 third country nationals who were also trapped in that part of the country.
It is believed that at least some of the Ivorian refugees may have crossed back into their home country. UNHCR staff in Tabou, south-west of Côte d'Ivoire, also report constant movement of Liberians back and forth across the border, as they try to check on the situation in their home villages.
"Regaining access to the east is one of our main priorities at the moment," said Moses Okello, UNHCR's Representative in Liberia. "It is important to be on the ground, to know what's going on. Without access we cannot take care of, or protect, anyone who is of our concern. Obviously, security needs to be in place to allow us to function properly, but sometimes presence alone may already make a difference."
Elsewhere in Liberia, rampant lawlessness is still hampering humanitarian operations in many regions, although aid operations and assessment missions are continuing to spread outwards from Monrovia which, along with its immediate surroundings, has now been more or less secured by the ECOMIL peace-keeping force.
On 5 September, a successful distribution of relief materials was carried out by the Lutheran World Foundation to the most needy of the tens of thousands of newly displaced people who have been congregating in Salala, 85 kilometres to the north-east of Monrovia. The relief items, which included plastic sheeting, high-protein biscuits and water, were provided by UNHCR and other UN agencies, and had been delivered the previous day by an exploratory convoy. Fears that the relief supplies might be looted overnight were not realized. The Salala 1 Camp, previously home to 30,000 people, is now believed to hold more than 80,000 following last week's huge exodus from the town of Totota.
On Monday, a joint UNHCR, OCHA and WFP mission, visiting the Salala, Totota and Kakata region, came across hundreds more people moving southwards from the town of Todee towards Kakata. Many of the frightened people said they were fleeing because of continued rumours of fighting and looting and harassment. As was also the case during last week's movement, people were carrying as many possessions as they could, knowing that anything they leave behind will probably be looted.
Guinea-Bissau troops serving with the ECOMIL force on Tuesday began moving towards Kakata, and UNHCR officials said they hoped the deployment would help bring some desperately needed stability and security to the region. Another joint UN mission, including UNHCR staff, was travelling to the region on Tuesday.
In Monrovia itself, UNHCR has so far provided relief materials for 10,000 displaced people in two of the eight IDP camps in or near the capital. This includes a delivery, on Monday, of blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans and mats for a group of around 3,000 people in Seigbeh camp in the Montserrado area, just to the north of Monrovia.