Côte d'Ivoire: new site for Liberians rejected
UNHCR remains extremely concerned about the situation in Côte d'Ivoire and the security of tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Liberians, in the western part of the country. You may recall that before the holidays, we were urgently seeking authorisation to evacuate at least 5,000 terrified Liberian refugees from Nicla, a camp close to the front lines, to a safer coastal area further to the south. UNHCR staff in Côte d'Ivoire have worked throughout the past month to find a new, secure site. But those plans suffered a setback over the weekend when the community which had been approached for the new site finally rejected the idea. The people of Grand Lahou, a town on the Atlantic coast west of Abidjan, cited overall security concerns for their decision. We are now scrambling to find an alternative.
Nicla, the only camp run by UNHCR in Côte d'Ivoire, is on the southern outskirts of the town of Guiglo, which is itself only about 10 km from the shifting front lines. New attacks Monday on French positions, as well as in Grabo, further south near Tabou, brought the fighting closer to the camp. This has further increased fears among the refugee population about a possible attack as rebels move southwards. Nicla initially had a population of about 5,000 refugees who were considered particularly vulnerable because of their ethnicity. The camp's population is believed to have grown in recent weeks as other refugees from the surrounding villages sought safety in the camp. At the same time, some refugees may have left the camp for fear it could become a target.
While the Nicla refugees are our most immediate concern, the volatile situation in western Côte d'Ivoire has made it imperative that we move the entire refugee population in the country - some 70,000 people before the crisis first erupted in September - to safer locations. Most of these refugees are living in local villages and communities. Some 32,000 Liberians - perhaps not all of them registered as refugees in Côte d'Ivoire - have spontaneously returned to Liberia since fighting spread to the west in November. We estimate that between 50-60,000 remain in and around the conflict area.
UNHCR continues to appeal to neighbouring countries to grant temporary asylum to some groups of Liberian refugees presently in Côte d'Ivoire. We are also continuing our search for alternative sites within Côte d'Ivoire itself, while trying to obtain better security for refugees in their current areas of settlement. Obviously, we hope that the latest peace initiatives will bear fruit while appealing to all parties to respect refugees and guarantee their safety in Nicla and in the areas of spontaneous settlement.
Meanwhile, Liberians, Ivorians and small numbers of other nationalities continue crossing the borders into Liberia and Guinea. UNHCR has registered over 53,000 arrivals in Liberia and some 3,000 in Guinea since the conflict spread to the west of Côte d'Ivoire in mid-November. The Liberia figure includes about 33,000 Liberians and 20,000 Ivorians, as well as hundreds of people from other West African countries. In addition, a group of 7,000 people was reported at Liberia's Plebo border crossing on Sunday night. This border crossing is directly opposite the Ivorian town of Grabo, 60 km north of Tabou. Grabo was reportedly overrun by rebels over the weekend.