UNHCR starts gradual return to Liberia's border areas
HARPER, Liberia, April 29 (UNHCR) - With tensions easing slightly in the last two weeks, the UN refugee agency has gradually returned to Liberia's border areas with Côte d'Ivoire, where tens of thousands of people have been cut off from humanitarian aid following a series of violent attacks in eastern Liberia.
On Tuesday, UNHCR joined a World Food Programme (WFP) boat from the Liberian capital of Monrovia to the southern coastal town of Harper to deliver some relief items, light vehicles and fuel for refugee operations there. The transit centre at Harper hosts thousands of refugees and West African migrant workers who had fled the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire.
Following a security assessment mission last week, UNHCR and WFP have also started two weekly flights to Harper to deliver some relief supplies and to facilitate staff movement. A UNHCR senior emergency co-ordinator arrived in Harper on Monday to further assess the needs of refugees there.
The refugee agency, along with many other relief agencies, had pulled out most of its staff from the volatile border areas in the wake of renewed fighting in eastern Liberia and western Côte d'Ivoire.
As the fighting eased somewhat in eastern Liberia, UNHCR and WFP last week sent a mission to Saclepea and distributed food to a transit camp for some 800 Ivorian refugees and West African nationals. The team left on Sunday after receiving news about renewed fighting in the neighbouring town of Tappita.
A separate mission by UNHCR and German aid agency GTZ was sent to Saclepea to evaluate security and road conditions. The team examined conditions in the camp, including some shelters that had been damaged by heavy rainstorms. They also heard reports by Liberian officials that more Ivorian refugees had crossed into Liberia recently and that more displaced Liberians were arriving in Saclepea from Ganta, further north, where fierce fighting has been raging.
UNHCR is looking to focus its relief efforts in Harper, where it has set up a new camp with 200 shelters that the refugees have started moving into. If necessary, the site can be expanded to accommodate up to 50,000 people.
"We hope that refugees and other people displaced by fighting in the area will now attempt to reach Harper upon hearing that assistance is available there," said UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
Close to 100,000 people - a mix of Ivorians, Liberians and other West African nationals - have fled into Liberia since the Ivorian conflict spread to western Côte d'Ivoire in November last year.