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Liberian influx slows down; UNHCR tries to ease tensions with Ivorian hosts

Liberian influx slows down; UNHCR tries to ease tensions with Ivorian hosts

An estimated 15,000 Liberian refugees have arrived in south-western Côte d'Ivoire after fleeing the rebel advance in southern Liberia. The UN refugee agency is trying to minimise local tensions by sharing relief supplies. It is also pushing for the establishment of a proper refugee camp in Tabou.
22 May 2003
Liberian refugees at Tabou transit centre, which was built for 700 people but now houses 1,700.

TABOU, Côte d'Ivoire, May 22 (UNHCR) - In an attempt to ease tensions between the local community and an estimated 15,000 Liberian refugees arriving in south-western Côte d'Ivoire this week, the UN refugee agency today distributed relief supplies to both groups and met with local authorities to discuss the establishment of a proper camp in the area.

UNHCR estimates that in the last week, some 15,000 Liberians have fled the rebel take-over of Harper in southern Liberia and arrived in Tabou, across the Cavaly river in south-western Côte d'Ivoire.

The flow of refugees has dwindled after the initial influx, "simply because there are no transportation means anymore," said Anne Dolan, Head of UNHCR's sub-office in Tabou. "The only refugees who are still arriving are doing so along the Atlantic coastline by boat, or at the border crossing situated at the mouth of the Cavaly river, which had been closed in previous days and has just opened up again recently."

By Thursday, the situation in Tabou had settled down slightly, despite initial strong reactions among the local community against the refugees' presence. Dolan empathised: "It's really hard for the Ivorians to accept this new flow of refugees, when they themselves are struggling with a fragile peace process."

"The Liberians are playing ping-pong business," said the Deputy Mayor of Tabou, referring to the ebb and flow of Liberian refugees in recent months and echoing the general feeling that the Ivorian population's hospitality was wearing thin.

"At the same time," added Dolan, "the Ivorians are essentially good people who do not like to see others suffer. Some local chiefs have come to tell me not to worry, that they would accept refugees in any case."

In the wake of the Ivorian civil war, which started last September and spread to the west of the country in November, UNHCR helped thousands of Liberians living in the Ivorian west return to their homeland amid growing hostility from the locals.

Just days after these returns started, the hitherto-peaceful eastern Liberia was beset by rebel violence. Within weeks, the Liberian towns of Toe Town and Zwedru came under attack, sending thousands of recent Liberian returnees fleeing, together with Ivorian refugees and other West Africans.

Last week's Harper attack was just the latest signpost in the disintegrating security in eastern Liberia that has caused humanitarian agencies to withdraw from the border region. About 70 aid workers from various organisations have fled Harper and arrived safely in Tabou.

Most of this week's Liberian arrivals in Tabou have already spread inland into small villages where some of them used to live; most seem to be able to integrate gradually. Côte d'Ivoire was one of the rare countries in Africa that only had one refugee camp, while the rest of the refugees were allowed to settle within the local communities and villages.

The situation however, is more complex in Tabou and San Pedro, where antagonism against Liberians is at its peak. The refugees are crammed in the UNHCR transit centre in Tabou, which can accommodate 700 but now hosts 1,700.

"The situation is so far acceptable because they have arrived in reasonable condition," said UNHCR's Dolan. "But with time, their needs will become more pressing."

On Thursday, the UNHCR official was due to attend a first co-ordination meeting with the authorities and partner non-governmental organisations to discuss the best strategy forward. "We have been waiting for the government's authorisation to build a proper camp in Tabou and extend assistance to refugees scattered in the area," she said.

The agency has distributed a first batch of domestic items - soap, blankets, mattresses, jerry cans and plastic sheeting - to the refugees at the Tabou centre and to the host surrounding communities, as a gesture in return for their support of the refugees.