Emergency repatriation for Liberians in western Ivorian crisis; top UNHCR official plans visit
TABOU, Côte d'Ivoire, Jan 14 (UNHCR) - Some 1,000 Liberian refugees trapped in strife-torn western Côte d'Ivoire could soon be heading home under an emergency repatriation operation by the UN refugee agency, which is also planning to set up camps for the recent Ivorian influx into Liberia. Meanwhile, a top UNHCR official prepares to visit the region for a first-hand look at ongoing operations.
On Tuesday, UNHCR welcomed the signing of a cease-fire agreement in Lomé between the two western rebel movements and the loyalist forces. The refugee agency also voiced support for talks due to start on Wednesday in Paris, calling on all participating parties to find a peaceful resolution, ensure the safety of humanitarian staff and the free movement of civilians and refugees in Côte d'Ivoire.
However, the situation remains tense in south-western Côte d'Ivoire, where rebels captured the town of Grabo, near Tabou, last week. More than 6,000 Liberian refugees - out of an estimated 20,000 refugees still in the area - have already fled back into Liberia, while some 1,000 remain stranded in two compounds in Tabou, including one housing the offices of UNHCR and Catholic aid organisation CARITAS. The local population has so far prevented refugees in the UNHCR/CARITAS compound from leaving, suspecting them of involvement with the rebels. "If we die, you will die with us," they told the refugees. Four Liberian refugees were even beaten up on Sunday.
UNHCR is currently making plans to help the stranded refugees return to Liberia as an emergency measure. This could start as soon as Wednesday, pending talks with local officials and traditional leaders. The agency will mobilise local mini-buses to transport the refugees to the border, and use canoes to transport them across the Cavaly River into Liberia. A UNHCR ferry that had previously been used to transport returnees across the river was blown up in November by security forces fearing that Liberian rebels would use it to enter Côte d'Ivoire.
The planned emergency repatriation is UNHCR's last resort after failed attempts to evacuate refugees from conflict-ridden western Côte d'Ivoire. A proposed relocation site in the south fell through recently, while regional countries have yet to respond to UNHCR's appeal to grant temporary asylum to these desperate refugees.
Meanwhile, in eastern Liberia, a total of 62,000 new arrivals have been recorded since rebel fighting spread to western Côte d'Ivoire in mid-November. These include 38,000 Liberians (not necessarily all registered refugees), 21,000 Ivorians and 3,000 people of other nationalities. Many of them are hosted in four transit centres, but most of the Ivorians have been living in villages near the border.
UNHCR is requesting permission from the local authorities to set up camps for the Ivorian refugees. At the same time, the agency is transporting the returning Liberians back to their home areas where possible, mainly to Bong and Nimba counties, where relative peace prevails. Those who cannot go home due to the continuing internal conflict will be assisted in a camp for internally displaced persons in Totota, south of Gbarnga, in Bong county.
The current refugee movements in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia will be on the agenda when UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner, Mary Ann Wyrsch, starts her 11-day mission to West Africa on Wednesday. She plans to travel to border areas and refugee/returnee camps to meet the recent arrivals.
Besides Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, she will also visit Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where she will meet returnees. Her programme will also include meetings with senior government officials, diplomats and representatives of UN agencies and non-governmental agencies.