Lubbers ends West African trip in Côte d'Ivoire
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, Feb 7 (UNHCR) - War in Côte d'Ivoire has delayed the establishment of a full-fledged government office responsible for refugees and statelessness, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers before the latter concluded his West African tour in Abidjan over the weekend.
Meeting Lubbers in the Ivorian economic capital on Friday, President Gbagbo said, "I meant to create an office in charge of refugees and stateless persons that would enable them to obtain identity and travel documents. I was myself a refugee in France for six-and-a-half years, so I know."
The Minister of Foreign Affairs noted that the government was working on the adoption of a national refugee law that will establish this office.
Côte d'Ivoire, the last stop of Lubbers' four-nation trip to West Africa, has been at war since September 2002. Until then, it had one of the most generous asylum traditions that allowed refugees to settle in villages instead of being confined to camps. The country hosts 72,000 mostly Liberian refugees, with non-Liberian refugees accounting for less than 2,000.
However, anti-refugee sentiments arose for the first time in Côte d'Ivoire following the outbreak of the conflict. The involvement of some Liberian nationals in the ranks of fighters in western Côte d'Ivoire cast suspicion on all refugees in the minds of Ivorians. The anti-refugee sentiments prompted UNHCR to carry out a massive information campaign on the theme, "Your Tolerance Can Make a Difference", launched by the High Commissioner in Abidjan in May 2003.
Taking into consideration the regional dimension of the war in Côte d'Ivoire and until recently in Liberia, Sierra Leone and to a lesser extent Guinea, Lubbers called for a regional approach to disarmament in order to firmly stabilize the Mano River Union countries - a regional cooperation body between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Lubbers held talks with the heads of states of all four countries and consulted with government and senior UN officials, refugees and the humanitarian community before returning to Geneva on Saturday.
"It is important that the Mano River Union countries, extended to Côte d'Ivoire, uphold common principles, one of them being that only state forces can carry arms and that it is illegal for any other groups to do so, irrespective of the names these irregular elements are given," Lubbers stated.
For the past 15 years, Liberia has been a breeding ground for roaming armed militiamen who fought brutal wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and are now believed to be engaged in Côte d'Ivoire. These militiamen have been fighting on the side of both rebels and governments who sometimes give them para-state status.
President Gbagbo told the UN refugee agency chief that he fully agreed to take part in the Mano River Union Summits to ensure effective disbanding of armed groups who he tagged as a "truly professional inter-state army of desperate people who go where they are paid to fight".
Sierra Leone and Liberia are recovering from war, which has allowed UNHCR to complete the Sierra Leonean repatriation programme last July and to start a return operation last October for the 340,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa.
It is estimated that close to 100,000 Liberian refugees have returned on their own to their places of origin during 2004. Furthermore, the UN refugee agency has so far helped repatriate some 7,000 Liberian refugees from the region by sea, air and land convoys, but Lubbers said the time has come to speed up the pace of the return movement.
By Fatoumata Kaba in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire