Lubbers seeks solutions for refugees caught in Ivorian conflict
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, May 12 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers today met with Côte d'Ivoire's top leaders to discuss possible solutions for refugee populations in the strife-torn West African country.
On Monday, Lubbers met with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and other senior officials to discuss the fate of refugees caught in the eight-month-old conflict in Côte d'Ivoire. The High Commissioner said UNHCR was particularly concerned about an estimated 9,000 Liberian refugees in Nicla camp, in the west of the country.
On Sunday, Lubbers visited Nicla camp, where he met with representatives of various refugee groups. All of them expressed concern about the insecurity in western Côte d'Ivoire and their desire to be relocated elsewhere. Several times during the day, refugee crowds broke into loud chants of "We want to go." At one time, hundreds of school children, who gathered to greet the High Commissioner, chanted, "We want to go, we are not dead."
Representatives of women's and youth groups complained to Lubbers about the militarisation of the camp and recruitment of young people. They also said they were concerned about prostitution and other social problems in the camp.
The High Commissioner told Nicla's refugee representatives that UNHCR was working on three different ways to help them - through relocation to a safer area within Côte d'Ivoire, resettlement in third countries, and repatriation to Liberia.
Cautioning that none of the possible solutions would be easy, he said stability in Liberia was crucial for possible repatriation while resettlement in third countries required an agreement by these nations to accept some of Nicla's refugees. He said even moving the refugees to another place in Côte d'Ivoire would only be possible if a suitable site could be found.
Lubbers noted that Côte d'Ivoire had a long tradition of hospitality towards refugees but that since last September's attempted coup, hospitality has worn thin.
Later on Monday, the High Commissioner was scheduled to launch a public awareness campaign designed to ease animosity between the local population and refugees. The campaign includes CDs with two songs written by prominent Ivorian artists, as well as radio and TV spots. A TV soap opera is also part of the campaign that has the backing of Côte d'Ivoire's religious leaders and other personalities.
Lubbers repeatedly told those he met that Liberians have been victimised twice, first in their own country and then again when public sentiment turned against them in Côte d'Ivoire. He said he understood the refugees' fear and fatigue, assuring them that UNHCR would do all it could to end their ordeal.
"We as UNHCR will be with you to bring your ordeal to an end," Lubbers told the Nicla refugees on Sunday afternoon. He said UNHCR will try to work with the international community to see what is possible, but warned that not everybody would be able to go to another country. "We can't talk about all the people going to other countries," he said.
As part of his eight-day, five-nation mission to West Africa, the High Commissioner will travel from Côte d'Ivoire to Ghana, where he is scheduled to meet top leaders and visit Buduburam camp for Liberian refugees. He will also meet high-ranking officials in Liberia, where UNHCR on Saturday resumed the repatriation by boat of Sierra Leonean refugees from Monrovia to Freetown.
In Sierra Leone, Lubbers will visit returnees and refugees, while in Guinea, he will observe UNHCR's operations for Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees. The agency has repatriated some 16,500 Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea since the beginning of this year.
High Commissioner Lubbers will end his West Africa mission on Sunday.