Refugees flee in all directions as conflict spreads in eastern Liberia
HARPER, Liberia, April 4 (UNHCR) - The growing conflict in eastern Liberia has seriously hampered the UN refugee agency's efforts to assist tens of thousands of people fleeing the Ivorian crisis. More than 5,000 twice-displaced refugees have approached UNHCR in southern Liberia, but many more remain scattered without assistance around the battle zone.
Over the last few weeks, rebel fighting in eastern Liberia's Grand Geddeh county has displaced more than 45,000 recent arrivals from Côte d'Ivoire - including 20,000 Ivorian refugees, 9,000 West African nationals and 17,000 Liberian returnees. They represent about half of the nearly 100,000 people who fled to Liberia after the Ivorian crisis broke out in September last year.
As fighting rages in Grand Geddeh county, the border region with Côte d'Ivoire has become volatile and virtually inaccessible for relief agencies, causing UNHCR to pull out most of its staff from these areas.
Following recent rebel attacks on transit centres in Zwedru and Toe Town, both in Grand Geddeh county, more than 5,000 Ivorian refugees and other West Africans have arrived in UNHCR's transit centre at Harper in Mariland county, southern Liberia. The area, which has so far been spared by the fighting, hosted some 1,200 refugees in its transit centre prior to the new arrivals, with many others settled in villages.
UNHCR is looking to focus its relief effort in Harper, where it has set up a new camp with 200 shelters that the refugees have started moving into. If necessary, the site can be expanded to accommodate up to 50,000 people, but there is a shortage of manpower as only locally-hired staff of UNHCR and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) remain.
Meanwhile, thousands of other refugees have reached Greenville, further west on the coast of Sinoe county. Yet others have dispersed to the north towards Saclepea, near the border with Guinea, where UNHCR also has a transit centre. Some had spontaneously settled in River Gee county - immediately south of Grand Geddeh - before being displaced by the latest fighting, and moving on to find some assistance.
Many more Ivorians and West Africans are living in the border villages and are believed to be in need of assistance.
Further north, some 7,000 Liberian refugees arrived in Guinea last weekend after fleeing fighting in Ganta town, Nimba county, eastern Liberia. Many of them were traumatised, and some had gunshot wounds. UNHCR is working to transfer them to an existing Guinean camp in Lainé and to assist some 4,000 of them at the makeshift transit centre in Baala, at the Guinea-Liberia border near Nzérékoré.
Dozens of aid workers - some internationals but most of them nationals - have also been dispersed by last week's fighting. Some have begun to arrive in Monrovia as well as in Côte d'Ivoire. But more are still believed to be in hiding somewhere between Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.