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Africa Fact Sheet - West Africa

Africa Fact Sheet - West Africa

3 November 1999

Events in Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries which together account for 685,000 of the continent's 3.3 million refugees, continue to dominate the humanitarian agenda in West Africa.

Hopes for Sierra Leone's tens of thousands of displaced people and over 450,000 exiles rose when President Kabbah and Revolutionary United Front rebels struck a power-sharing deal on 7 July. The accord followed earlier guarantees by the two sides of access for aid agencies to areas that were cut off for months or even years during the civil conflict. Military units under the authority of the new U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, are expected to be deployed during the month of December.

Testing the promise of access to the countryside, UNHCR and other agencies have found that though the ceasefire generally appears to be holding, the general population may not trust that it will last. A mission from Freetown in October to a former rebel stronghold in Kailahun district had to pass 44 checkpoints manned by either West African peacekeepers or former rebels.

UNHCR staff say very few Sierra Leonean refugees have elected to return home so far. After security incidents in neighbouring Liberia in August an estimated 3,000 Sierra Leoneans crossed back into Kailahun. But many of these told UNHCR they won't move back to their villages yet and prefer to find shelter wherever possible in more populated areas, adding to the displaced population.

In Liberia, an armed attack in August on the town of Kolahun echoed a similar incident three months before, also in northern Lofa County, only with more serious results: aid staff were forced to pull out of the area and thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees abandoned their camp in search of safety.

The August attack brought an immediate halt to repatriation to Lofa County, one of Liberia's five principal return counties. Coming as the repatriation operation moved into its final months (transportation for refugees wanting to return is scheduled to end at the close of this year), the incident forced UNHCR to redirect scarce resources in order to transfer and integrate urgently over 13,000 refugees from Kolahun in another site.

At the close of October more than 120,000 Liberians had repatriated since May 1997 with UNHCR's help. An estimated 190,000 have come home spontaneously over the same period, leaving 210,000 Liberian refugees in the region, mainly in neighbouring Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.

In Guinea, host to the majority of both Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees, UNHCR offices find themselves reviewing operational plans frequently to keep pace with events in refugees' home countries.

The Liberia-Guinea border was shut along its entire length after the August incidents raised tensions between the states. With no word as to when the suspended repatriation might be restarted, UNHCR staff have had to reconsider the planned phase-out of English language schools and feeding programmes for Liberian refugee children. And although many Sierra Leonean refugees have said they would go home once the disarmament process there is complete, work continues in the meantime to help traumatized victims of the civil war and to move refugees away from border areas. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans near Guéckédou and Forécariah in Guinea are still considered vulnerable to armed incursions.

Illustrating the agency's engagement in the region, newly-appointed Deputy High Commissioner Frederick Barton travelled to Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire in late October, the third senior UNHCR official to do so this year following visits by the High Commissioner and Assistant High Commissioner.

A return to calm in Guinea-Bissau has encouraged refugees to return from several countries they fled to during the civil war of 1998. After UNHCR brought 700 and 600 volunteers back by boat from Senegal and Cape Verde, respectively, several hundred refugees from the group of 1,800 refugees in Boke, Guinea (Conakry), expressed a wish to repatriate too. The overland operation is scheduled to get underway in November. UNHCR is still caring for 720 Guinea-Bissau refugees in Gambia.

UNHCR and the government have opened a 5,000-person centre in Kpomasse, Benin, to accommodate most of the country's refugees from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Togo. The site's construction was financed by UNHCR, a local NGO, and the governments of Benin and Belgium. Refugees and villagers in Kpomasse will have access at the centre to training designed to reduce their dependence on international assistance, including courses in masonry, carpentry and animal husbandry.