Feature: Homeless again as refugees flee burning shanty towns in Côte d'Ivoire
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, October 2 (UNHCR) - Alladji Billaj thought he was safe when he fled his native country of Liberia for Côte d'Ivoire a few years ago. But his sense of security was shattered when he was recently forced out of his home in the Ivorian city of Abidjan.
"When they started burning my house I had to leave again," said 66-year-old Billaj, dragging his luggage out of a taxi in front of the UNHCR office in Abidjan. "I could only bring a part of my family," he added, pointing to five traumatised-looking children and his wife.
Billaj is among the hundreds of refugees who have approached UNHCR's office in Abidjan for help in recent weeks. In the wake of an attempted coup on September 19, the Ivorian armed forces have been burning down shanty towns close to military installations, main electricity lines and main roads in a search of rebels and weapons. As a result, over 6,000 Ivorians, immigrants and refugees have been rendered homeless.
More than 50 refugees still approach the UN refugee agency in Abidjan daily. Like many others stranded in front of the agency's office, Billaj had received a notice from the Municipality of Yopougon, a district in Abidjan, stating that he had to leave his house within six days. If he failed to do so, he would be chased out of the house and forced to cover the accompanying costs himself.
"Notices have only recently been sent out to inhabitants of the precarious areas inside Abidjan, telling them to leave their houses," said Panos Moumtzis, deputy head of UNHCR's office in Abidjan. "The plan to clear some of these shanty towns was apparently prepared a while ago, but recent developments have accelerated the process."
Billaj was lucky compared to many other displaced refugees. He managed to recover a large part of his belongings and bring it to the UNHCR office.
William, a recent arrival from Liberia, was not so lucky - his house in the Agban area in Plateaux was burnt to the ground three days ago. There was no time to get anything, not even his ID, as he and his family were chased away by the gendarmerie (police force). He ended up in front of the UN refugee agency, where he is waiting to be transferred to a transit centre.
Earlier, the military had stopped him on the road and asked for his ID. When he failed to produce it, he was taken away and beaten up badly. "See the marks on my back", he said, shivering. "Where can I go now? I can't even walk on the street."
Since September 19, UNHCR has found three transit centres for over 650 refugees in the Ecole de bons samaritains (School of Good Samaritans), a factory in Koumassi district and a residential house in Deux-Plateaux district in Abidjan.
However, the centres are overcrowded with refugees, and the agency is desperately searching for additional centres where the displaced refugees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Rwanda, Togo and Sudan can be housed.
"We've just found a centre in Koumassi, a nicely-equipped warehouse that can house over 50 refugees," said Margarida Fawke, UNHCR's programme officer in Abidjan.
"It has been a race around the clock so far," she added. "The moment we find a centre, it is filled by waiting refugees and we have to look for a new site again."
In addition, UNHCR is trying to find solutions for those refugees who can support themselves in the longer term. As part of this arrangement, five families were transferred on Tuesday to some small apartments in Abidjan, where the refugee agency will assist them for the next three months until they are self-sufficient again.
Meanwhile, the refugees still stranded at the UNHCR office in Abidjan are afraid and want to leave as soon as possible, to another centre or even to another country. Among those who have lost their homes, several Sierra Leonean refugees have told the refugee agency that they now want to return to their country. The agency is organising their voluntary repatriation.
On Monday, UNHCR and other agencies met with the Prime Minister of Côte d'Ivoire to discuss possible solutions to the humanitarian crisis. The government says it is willing to collaborate with all humanitarian agencies and is establishing an emergency cell to deal with the situation.
By Astrid van Genderen Stort
UNHCR Côte d'Ivoire