Guinea: 12,000+ in transit centre
More than 12,000 refugees from troubled south-western Guinea are currently being cared for in a temporary transit centre while awaiting transport to safer areas in the interior of the country. More refugees, mostly Sierra Leoneans, continue to arrive daily in the makeshift transit centre at Katkama, 30 km north of the town of Guéckédou. Katkama had been partially destroyed during unrest in the region late last year, but was again put back into service in February after thousands of refugees began fleeing northwards to escape unrest in the Guéckédou and Parrot's Beak areas of the south-west. By early March, Katkama had again been emptied after UNHCR and its partners had transferred everyone to a new camp at Kountaya, about 180 km to the north. Now, four weeks later, Katkama has another 12,000 anxious inhabitants and the new camp at Kountaya is full, with more than 25,000 refugees. Tomorrow (Wednesday), UNHCR is scheduled to begin transfers from Katkama to another new camp at Boreah, 50 km north of Kountaya. At the same time, Katkama's capacity is being expanded in anticipation of more arrivals from the south-west.
UNHCR continues to send trucks to the northern part of the Parrot's Beak region in search of vulnerable refugees trying to make their way to Katkama. A March 9 attack on the town of Nongoa, inside the Parrot's Beak, sent nearly 9,000 refugees in the area running for safety. Many have moved northwards to the towns of Mongo and onward to Katkama. Others are believed to have retreated further into the Parrot's Beak region, and some have crossed back into Sierra Leone or are still hiding in the bush.
UNHCR has also been transferring refugees from the Massakoundou camp, near the town of Kissidougou, to the new sites. Massakoundou is considered too close to insecure border areas. A total of 700 refugees have already been taken to Kountaya. Future transfers will now go to the new Boreah camp. The transfers from Massakoundou have become all the more urgent following a Guinean military search of the camp on March 26, allegedly for rebels who might have been hiding there. Approximately 500 people, including some NGO workers, were taken to Kissidougou town for questioning and were later detained. In addition, one UNHCR/GTZ truck was seized by the army to carry out the operation. The majority of the detained refugees were released late last week, but the operation left many Massakoundou residents anxious to leave. A survey carried out earlier in the camp showed that 53 per cent of Massakoundou's population of 14,000 would like to return home to Sierra Leone. Forty per cent would like to remain in the camp while only 6 per cent would like to relocate within Guinea.
In an indication of the increasing desperation of the refugees, nearly 1,000 people from Massakoundou tried to travel to the Guinean capital of Conakry by bus and truck this week to catch a boat back to Sierra Leone, but were blocked by Guinean authorities. The Guineans said the refugees had no authorization to travel.
Other refugees have walked back to Sierra Leone through dangerous borderlands. The eastern Sierra Leone town of Daru is recording nearly 300 returnees a day. Daru is 60 km from the Sierra Leone/Guinea border and 50 km north-east of Kenema, where UNHCR has an office. UNHCR in Kenema has registered over 4,000 returnees during March, most of them on foot.
UNHCR and IOM also continue returns to Sierra Leone by sea from Conakry. Since last September, an estimated 30,000 people have returned by boat from Conakry to Freetown.
UNHCR also started moving refugees from Massakoundou camp in order to defuse the tension there and take the refugees to safety. A first convoy on Wednesday took 281 refugees from Massakoundou to Kountaya. A census carried out recently in Masskoundou found that the population there was about 14,000 refugees, much less than previously thought. Bus transport from Massakoundou to Conakry, by private companies and the Catholic mission, have carried on operating at least twice a week, taking candidates for boat repatriation.
A total of 23,000 refugees have now been relocated to Kountaya since the beginning of the movement in early February. The new site can take an additional few thousand people. A second site, in Boreah, also in the Albadaria Prefecture, should be ready to receive refugees by the end of this week. A third site, in Sembakounya (Dabola Prefecture), could be ready within two weeks. Refugees in Kountaya are being allocated plots of land where they can start building a temporary shelter. UNHCR will provide communal building kits as well as family house kits. However, a significant number of relocated refugees (at least 35%) still express the wish to return home to Sierra Leone as soon as possible. UNHCR is studying possible ways to facilitate transport to Conakry for those wishing to repatriate.