UNHCR warns time running out for refugees in Côte d'Ivoire
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, 23 Dec. (UNHCR) - UNHCR on Monday repeated its plea for urgent international support in securing safe passage and sanctuary for tens of thousands of desperate refugees threatened by the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire.
The UN refugee agency wants to evacuate to safety an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Liberian refugees trapped in the conflict zone in the western region of Côte d'Ivoire. But to do so, it urgently needs agreement from all sides for safe access to and safe passage for the trapped refugees; immediate agreement from the Ivorian government for new sites in safer areas along the southern coast; and agreement from other West African regional governments to provide protection for the refugees.
Most urgently, the agency wants to evacuate some 6,000 desperate Liberian refugees who are currently waiting in Nicla camp, near the western town of Guiglo and about 50 km from the Liberian border. Although in a government-controlled area, the camp is very close to the front lines. The Liberian refugees in Nicla are particularly fearful that some of the rebel fighters are reportedly members of an opposing ethnic group.
"We are extremely anxious to get these Liberian refugees moved south to safety because fighting continued in the region over the weekend," said Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR's acting representative in Côte d'Ivoire. "We've had a team in Nicla and they report that the refugees are also extremely anxious to leave because they know the fighting is getting closer. It's a real race against time."
As of mid-afternoon Monday, UNHCR was still awaiting word from the Ivorian government on an urgent request for a new site for up to 10,000 refugees in the southern part of the country along the Atlantic Coast.
Once a site is approved by the government, UNHCR wants to immediately begin the transfer of the Nicla refugees. The UNHCR team which was in Nicla on Sunday reported today that the refugees are so frightened that they are willing to move to any new, safe site even before basic facilities are in place.
"They are really desperate to get out of there," said Jacques Franquin, a member of the UNHCR team that visited Nicla. "They feel under extreme threat and are unable to go back to Liberia. The immediate solution is to move them further south as soon as possible to a site somewhere between Abidjan and the port of San Pedro. But we need government go-ahead to begin."
UNHCR and its NGO partners have 50 buses and 20 trucks on standby for the transfer and French forces have indicated they would provide security for the evacuation.
It is difficult to tell how many Liberians remain in the west of Côte d'Ivoire. More than 31,000 Liberians have fled Côte d'Ivoire for home since the fighting spread to the west late last month. Another 18,000 Ivorian nationals have been registered by UNHCR in Liberia during the same period.
"The fact that these people are seeking refuge in a country like Liberia, itself unstable and torn by fighting, gives you an idea of present conditions in that part of Côte d'Ivoire," said UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane, who returned to Geneva from the region late last week.
UNHCR is also anxious to hear from other countries in West Africa who have been asked to take in some of the Liberian refugees from Côte d'Ivoire.
"Ideally, we would like to take them to a third country in the region, and we have approached a number of countries in this regard," Morjane told reporters earlier. "But as a first step, and while we wait for a positive response, we will temporarily relocate them to relative safety in the south of Côte d'Ivoire."
UNHCR is seeking $6.1 million in emergency funds to provide assistance to those who have already fled the conflict, and to enhance its preparedness should the situation deteriorate further. The agency has already sent several shipments of urgently needed domestic items to Liberia, and it is stockpiling for 20,000 people in the region.