More funds and goodwill needed in volatile West Africa, says top UNHCR official
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Jan 21 (UNHCR) - As the exodus from Côte d'Ivoire continues, the UN refugee agency's Deputy High Commissioner, Mary Ann Wyrsch, has embarked on the second leg of her West Africa mission by calling for more funds and goodwill to help new and existing refugees and returnees in the region.
Wyrsch is on an 11-day, four-nation tour to review UNHCR's operations in the volatile West Africa region. Currently in Freetown, Sierra Leone - where she met President Ahmed Kabbah this afternoon - she has so far visited Guinea and is set to travel to Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire later this week.
In Sierra Leone, she visited Jimmy Bagbo and Largo camps for Liberian refugees, as well as Kenema town and Nyandehu village, where Sierra Leonean returnees have been successfully reintegrated.
"We all know that last year has not been easy for UNHCR and its partners," said Wyrsch, reflecting on the human impact of funding shortfalls. "Due to a budget shortfall towards the end of the year, budgets had to be cut and West Africa - with all its needs - could not be spared. We were left with little money for refugees and returnees in need."
She added hopefully, "In Sierra Leone, however, it is fantastic to see that with so little means and everybody's help, so much has still been done."
But in the last months of 2002, funding problems had forced UNHCR to stop the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans. "When refugees cannot even go home - UNHCR's ultimate goal in any refugee situation - because of lack of money, the situation is really very difficult," lamented Wyrsch. "We hope that donors will come forward this year and realise the importance of return and reintegration programmes."
Sierra Leone has been devastated by 11 years of civil war. Refugee return and reintegration is still very difficult in some areas, especially in Kailahun and Kono, two eastern districts that suffered enormous destruction. UNHCR is assisting a majority of the 200,000 Sierra Leonean returnees who had been refugees in Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and other West African countries.
There are still more than 100,000 Sierra Leonean refugees scattered around the region. UNHCR is planning to help as many of them as possible to return this year. Asked why the Sierra Leoneans would abandon the comforts of camp life for the devastation of home, the Deputy High Commissioner replied, "My sense from visiting Kailahun is that however war-torn it is, the atmosphere is more positive and upbeat than in camps in Guinea. In my view, it's just better to be home."
UNHCR's repatriation plans, however, have been affected by the ongoing conflict in Liberia that continues to drive thousands of refugees in need of assistance into Sierra Leone and Guinea. At the same time, the civil strife in Côte d'Ivoire and the accompanying exodus are also stretching UNHCR's limited resources.
Visiting Guinea on the first leg of her mission, Wyrsch had met with senior government officials, UNHCR's local counterparts, the UN and non-governmental organisation community as well as refugee and community leaders. She expressed deep appreciation to the Guinean government for having hosted refugees for many years. The recent crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has once again put an additional strain on Guinea's already fragile economy, but the borders have nevertheless remained open for civilians in need.
While in Guinea, the Deputy High Commissioner toured Kissidougou district's Kouankan and Kountaya camps - where a majority of Sierra Leoneans are hosted - as well as Nzérékoré district's Lainé camp for Liberian refugees. She requested for the Guinean government to set up more transit camps to accommodate the recent exodus from Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, adding that other existing camps could be used for Liberians once the Sierra Leonean refugees go home.
Guinea is currently hosting over 190,000 refugees, mainly Liberians (116,000) and Sierra Leoneans (73,000).
Meanwhile, in Liberia - where the Deputy High Commissioner is scheduled to visit on Wednesday - an influx of people continues to arrive from strife-torn Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR has so far facilitated the emergency repatriation of some 450 Liberian refugees from Tabou in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. About 3,000 more have registered to follow.
Spontaneously, some 13,000 new arrivals have also been reported in recent days. This could bring to more than 79,000 the total number of returnees and refugees fleeing to Liberia since rebel fighting spread to western Côte d'Ivoire in mid-November.
Amid reports that the rebels are fighting again near the Liberian/Ivorian border, UNHCR has expressed concern about the increasingly tense border situation, which is affecting the safety of Liberian returnees and refugees.