Thousands flee northern Liberia for Guinea; UNHCR starts transfer inland
NZEREKORE, Guinea, April 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has begun to transfer more than 7,000 newly arrived Liberian refugees from Guinea's south-eastern border to safer inland camps as more refugees trickled in after fleeing a weekend of violence in north-eastern Liberia.
Over the weekend, thousands of Liberian refugees fled to Guinea to escape renewed fighting between government forces and rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in Ganta town, Gbarnga, north-eastern Liberia. The first wave of refugees reached Guinea's southern border with Liberia on Saturday morning, some of them with gunshot wounds, according to Pirjo Dupuy, UNHCR's Deputy Representative in Guinea.
Local authorities had earlier estimated that more than 15,000 Liberian refugees had arrived in Guinea. But they later revised the estimate to nearly half the number.
"These initial estimates have been revised by the authorities who now assess that there could be some 7,000 new arrivals," clarified Dupuy, who has travelled from Guinea's capital, Conakry, to UNHCR's office in Nzérékoré to oversee the agency's assistance to the new arrivals.
A UNHCR team went on Monday to the town of Baala, some 5 km from the border, to verify the reports of new arrivals. It found thousands of refugees at an old transit centre that was set up by UNHCR in 1998 to facilitate the repatriation of Liberian refugees. The centre was closed in 2000 when repatriation was suspended. The capacity of the centre - built for 700 - has been outstretched by the new arrivals, many clearly traumatised and exhausted by their ordeal, said Dupuy.
Refugees told the team that they had been shot at as they escaped to Guinea. Injured refugees, some with gunshot wounds, have been treated at the Baala transit centre. Gunfire could still be heard from across the border in Liberia, said the UNHCR team.
In other accounts, refugees said there was some "screening" being carried out on the Liberian side of the border as people fleeing the fighting massed on the border to cross into Guinea. Some people were prevented from leaving, they said.
"From their accounts, it is not clear who was doing the screening on the Liberian side and who was targeted," said Dupuy.
On Monday, the UN refugee agency started registering refugees at the Baala transit centre, which now has an estimated 4,000 refugees. The majority of those registered are Liberians, although there are also scores of Ivorians and Sierra Leoneans. UNHCR is putting up hangars to shelter the new arrivals from the elements. It is also installing additional water and sanitation facilities.
Thousands more refugees scattered in various locations along the border were being moved to Baala transit centre by military personnel patrolling border areas. Authorities estimate that up to 3,000 more refugees could be in areas along the border inside Guinea.
At the same time, UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from the overcrowded Baala transit centre to Lainé camp, some 50 km to the north-east. By Tuesday, some 300 refugees had been relocated from the cramped facility.
In Lainé, the refugee agency has received government approval to expand the facilities. Construction work has started on the camp. Other refugees will also be transferred to Nonah transit centre, some 20 km away.
"Conditions at Lainé are not ideal since the camp is full," said Dupuy. "But we believe this is better than keeping the refugees at the transit centre which is very close to the border."
The latest influx into Guinea comes in the wake of other population displacements in the region. Since the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire started last September, some 90,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries, mainly Liberia. By the end of 2002, fighting in Liberia itself had sent over 90,000 Liberians fleeing into neighbouring countries, including Guinea, which already hosts more than 100,000 Liberian refugees.