Lubbers' mission: To refocus world's attention on West Africa
GENEVA, May 9 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers is embarking on an eight-day mission to West Africa tomorrow to help focus the world's attention on the crisis-hit region. Among other things, he hopes to find solutions for victims of the recent Ivorian conflict and Liberian rebellion, and to visit returnees in Sierra Leone.
The mission, which starts on Saturday, will take Lubbers to Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. These five countries host some 400,000 refugees out of more than 520,000 in West Africa.
The region has been one of Lubbers' priorities since he went there on his first field mission as High Commissioner in early 2001. While there have been significant improvements in some areas since that visit, UNHCR remains very concerned about continued fighting in Liberia and the fragile situation in Côte d'Ivoire.
"This visit's main aim is to focus the attention of the international community on the region after the crisis in Iraq which mobilised a lot of attention, efforts and financing," said UNHCR spokeswoman Delphine Marie.
At his first stop in Côte d'Ivoire, the High Commissioner will meet President Laurent Gbagbo and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra in Abidjan, and travel to western Côte d'Ivoire to inspect the agency's operations to help refugees in the volatile region.
"Lubbers is going to be looking for a solution for the Liberians in western Ivory Coast," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. "That's one of the most immediate pressing issues."
Since the Ivorian conflict erupted last September, Liberian refugees have been exposed to hostility and harassment by the local population, as well as military recruitment by both the rebels and the government. UNHCR has been seeking long-term solutions for an estimated 30,000 Liberians remaining in the strife-torn country, including a particularly vulnerable group of about 5,000 to 8,000 refugees in Nicla camp, near Guiglo in the west. Relentless attempts to relocate Nicla's refugees have so far been unsuccessful.
Arriving in Ghana on Tuesday, Lubbers is scheduled to meet President John Agyekum Kufuor and visit Buduburam refugee settlement, home to some 28,000 Liberian refugees.
On Wednesday, Lubbers is set to travel to Liberia, where he will meet President Charles Taylor and other officials in Monrovia, before moving on to Sierra Leone, where he will meet President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah on Thursday.
The High Commissioner will travel to Tobanda camp for Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone's Kenema district. He will also get a first-hand look at the enormous progress that has been made in Sierra Leone over the past few years, including a UNHCR-assisted repatriation programme that has helped more than 220,000 people return home since 2000. In Kono district, he will visit settlements, a primary school and a UNHCR water project for returnees.
On Friday, Lubbers is scheduled to travel to Guinea, where he will meet government officials before travelling to the Nzérékoré region in the south, home to some 60,000 refugees from Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone.
The High Commissioner will end his West Africa mission and return to Geneva on Sunday.