Feature: UNHCR registers Liberians in south-eastern Guinea
YOMOU, Guinea (UNHCR) - Joan Karmoh, 16, was separated from her parents three months ago when she fled amid gunfire in her hometown in Shakole, Bong county, Liberia. For three weeks, she waited for them in a nearby town, surviving on 100 Liberian dollars ($2). But when they failed to show up, she continued fleeing to neighbouring Guinea and ended up in Nonah transit camp in Yomou, south-eastern Guinea.
"I cry every night for my parents, but if I go back I will never find them," said the girl. "I want to go to a real camp and go to school."
Joan's wish may just come true after a recent registration exercise in Nonah camp. "With this card, I know I am a refugee and can get food," she smiled.
On August 21, the UN refugee agency started a massive operation to verify and register Liberian refugees in south-eastern Guinea. The operation covers three major camps in three counties - Nonah and Kola camps in Nzérékoré Prefecture and Kouankan camp in Macenta Prefecture. These areas are home to over 80,000 refugees, 44,000 of whom are in camps and assisted by UNHCR.
UNHCR is mobilising between 100 and 400 local staff at various stages of registration, which are going on despite poor weather conditions. "The rainy season makes our work nearly impossible," said Samaka, one of the agency's drivers, referring to the slippery roads of red mud. "We slip more than we drive."
Within four days of the start of the exercise, UNHCR teams had registered over 4,720 out of an estimated 5,300 people in Nonah camp, most of whom had fled their homes in Liberia's Bong and Lofa counties between May and August.
Registration will provide the refugees with an official status and identity card with photo. In addition, it will give the humanitarian agencies a chance to update their statistics and find out specific characteristics of the refugee population. The registration form is detailed and specifies age, gender, status and other data, like medical condition and place of origin, that are crucial to ensuring that appropriate assistance is given.
Separated children like Joan are registered individually in order to facilitate speedy reunification as soon as families are traced.
"I believe this registration is very good as it gives us an identity in a country where otherwise we would be nothing," said Jano, Nonah camp's refugee leader, who arrived recently.
Jano was taking part in the exercise both as a registering refugee and a translator for the Krio language spoken by the refugees. He fled Bong county in May, and losing hope for a speedy return to Liberia, just wants to be transferred as soon as possible to "a proper camp" currently under construction at Lainé, north-east of Nzérékoré. So far, the site has been cleaned up and the installation of water and sanitation systems is almost finished.
In the first phase of the current registration exercise, refugees with distribution cards were given wristbands plus invisible ink on their fingers to ensure they did not come back a second time. In Kola and Nonah camps, home to most of the recent arrivals, refugees were very willing to co-operate. But in Kouankan Camp, home to over 32,000 refugees, UNHCR's preparatory work was not welcomed at all.
"In Kouankan Camp, we stumbled across an enormously hostile refugee community who refused even to be wrist-banded," said UNHCR's Senior Regional Technical Officer Ioli Kimyaci, who is in charge of this operation. "It is mainly a core group of refugees who have been there for years, know the system and do not want to lose their undue privileges."
Having spent years in the camp, some long-term refugees have profited by taking the ration cards of those who had left. Re-registration would only show that the number of refugees has decreased or that the names have been changed, and deprive them of the additional humanitarian aid.
The deadlock in Kouankan was resolved over the weekend under the mediation of UNHCR and the Guinean authorities. Wrist-banding in this camp took place in the second week of registration, and the registration itself was due to be completed on August 31. Final figures for the region should be out by early September.
"We were lucky in Nonah as there were very few complications and - as far as I am aware - hardly any cheating," said UNHCR's Kimyaci.
"We can never be 100 percent sure that a registration passes without cheating," she conceded, pointing to possible fraud among refugees or even locals who know the bio-data of refugees who have departed. "There is still a way to go before the system is fool proof, but at least over the past years it has improved enormously."
Guinea has received 25,000 new Liberian refugees this year. It hosts a total of 180,000 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone, 92,000 of whom are being assisted by UNHCR. The majority of the Liberian refugees are in the Nzérékoré region. As fighting in Liberia persists, the refugees continue to arrive in villages just across the border in Guinea's Macenta, Guéckédou and Nzérékoré prefectures.
Over 2,000 refugees who arrived in the past two months are still awaiting transfer to proper camps inside Guinea. Though tolerated for the time being by the local Guineans, some say the new arrivals are putting pressure on the local resources and infrastructure.
Part of the local population is concerned that the growing refugee population could attract Liberian rebel factions who are seen roaming around the area from time to time.
Though constrained heavily by the torrential rains and impassable roads, UNHCR is trying to transfer and register this remaining group of new arrivals as soon as possible.
"Registration is an ongoing process and needs to be done as often as possible to keep track of the flow of refugees," said UNHCR's Kimyaci. "Unfortunately, it is a time-consuming exercise and only few exercises can be done every year."
By Astrid van Genderen Stort