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UNHCR urges Côte d'Ivoire to act on Liberian refugees

UNHCR urges Côte d'Ivoire to act on Liberian refugees

UNHCR officials are pressing Côte d'Ivoire to OK an urgent evacuation of thousands of terrified Liberian refugees from a camp in the country's volatile west.
2 January 2003
Liberian refugee women on a country road in western Côte d'Ivoire.

GENEVA, Jan. 2 (UNHCR) - UNHCR today warned that time was running out for thousands of terrified Liberian refugees stuck in camp a mere 40 kilometres from the line that separates Ivorian troops from rebel forces. In repeated contacts with Ivorian officials over the past few days, UNHCR representatives urged them to identify a new campsite for the Liberians in the relatively safe south of the country.

UNHCR officials who recently travelled to Nicla camp, which houses an estimated 8,000 Liberian refugees, said the camp's inhabitants were extremely nervous and insisted on being moved to a safer location. A reported rebel attack in the area on January 1, south of the nearby town of Guiglo, caused additional anxiety amid the camp's population, whose ethnic composition would make it particularly vulnerable if rebels overran the area.

The camp originally housed 5,000 people, but it has swollen to about 8,000 since fighting spread to that area of Côte d'Ivoire in late November. Altogether, UNHCR plans to evacuate up to 60,000 Liberian refugees who are believed to be trapped by fighting in the west of Côte d'Ivoire. But the Nicla camp population is seen as a top priority.

As efforts continue to help Liberian refugees inside Côte d'Ivoire, more people continue to flee to neighbouring Liberia, which itself is the scene of a simmering conflict. A total of 53,600 people crossing from Côte d'Ivoire have now been registered in Liberia's eastern counties. They include 32,800 Liberians, who had lived in Côte d'Ivoire and now decided to go back, as well as 20,800 Ivorian nationals.

The Ivorians are hosted in UNHCR-run transit camps or shelter with relatives and locals, while the Liberians are being transferred to their hometowns and villages inside the country. They are given kitchen sets, agricultural tools and seeds, as well as a one-month food ration provided by the World Food Programme. Those who have nowhere to go can find shelter in one of the existing camps for internally displaced persons. UNHCR has deployed six emergency staff to Liberia in response to the crisis. Five more staff will be deployed by next week.

But while the relief operation to help those fleeing Côte d'Ivoire continues in rural areas of the country, direct transfers of returning Liberians to the capital, Monrovia, remain suspended. UNHCR halted the direct transfers on December 14, after 12 people who had been repatriated by plane from Abidjan were jailed by the authorities. Liberia's president, Charles Taylor subsequently accused UNHCR of bringing back Liberians from Côte d'Ivoire in order to overthrow him. UNHCR rejected the allegation as groundless. The agency's efforts to date to secure the release of the detainees have been unsuccessful.

While Ivorians and Liberians are the main groups uprooted by the crisis, UNHCR has noted an increasing number of nationals of Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, and Mauritania showing up in Liberia in recent days and asking to be taken to their embassies in Monrovia. UNHCR has already registered 500 such people at the border.