Lubbers calls for safe passage for Liberia's displaced people
GENEVA, July 4 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers today called for humanitarian access to and safe passage for thousands of refugees and civilians displaced by renewed fighting in Liberia. This comes amid reports of forced conscription and extortion along the highway between the capital, Monrovia, and neighbouring Sierra Leone.
"There are thousands of innocent civilians believed hiding in the bush in Liberia who urgently need help," said Lubbers in a statement Thursday, when UNHCR appealed for $10.4 million in emergency funds to cope with the mass displacements. "I appeal to all parties throughout the region to ensure that humanitarian assistance can be safely delivered to these people, and that those who wish to leave can find safe passage to secure areas."
More than 76,000 Liberians have fled their country since the beginning of this year. Following the June 20 rebel attack on Sinje camp, more than 9,000 Liberian refugees and Sierra Leonean returnees have arrived in Sierra Leone through the Gendema border point. The influx has subsided in recent days, down from an average of 300 to 500 new arrivals per day, to about 60 per day.
But the problem is far from over, according David Lambo, who heads UNHCR's Africa bureau. "We now have some 40,000 fresh Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone," he said. "At least 16,000 in the last two months have gone into Guinea and another 20,000 have gone into Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR believes this number will go up to 100,000 in the next several months."
Recent arrivals at the Bo Waterside bridge, which marks the border between the two countries, told UNHCR that forced conscription was taking place along the highway between Monrovia and Sierra Leone. They said that all males between 15 and 45 years of age were being forcibly recruited as they attempted to leave Liberia with their families. Two men were reported to have paid 800 Liberian dollars ($18) to avoid conscription. Immigration officials at the Sierra Leonean border confirmed a rise in the number of female-headed families among the recent arrivals.
Last week, there were also reports of up to 20 roadblocks along the same stretch of highway, with armed militia extorting money and personal belongings from those fleeing the fighting.
Those Liberians and Sierra Leoneans who did manage to cross over to Sierra Leone reported that the main highway to the border was very insecure and that thousands of people were still hiding in the forest, trying to find a way to safety. With the only road to Sierra Leone closed, UNHCR is looking at the possibility of sea or air transport for the estimated 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who remain in Liberia.
"We need to get them out of the conflict area as soon as possible," said Lubbers, who is scheduled to attend next week's meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Durban, South Africa. "Their situation is getting more desperate by the day."
To cope with the new influx from Liberia, UNHCR is issuing a supplementary appeal for $10.4 million to care for up to 100,000 refugee arrivals in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. The emergency appeal will cover a variety of needs, including rehabilitation and construction of camps, domestic needs, transport and logistics, water, sanitation, health and nutrition, and protection monitoring.
"As Liberian refugee numbers continue to grow, it has become impossible for UNHCR to accommodate their emergency needs within existing programmes," said the refugee agency's Director of Communication and Information, Anne Willem Bijleveld, in a letter to donors. "Meanwhile, indications are that the situation in Liberia is unlikely to improve and there is a real risk that it could further deteriorate."
In his statement Thursday, Lubbers also called for the immediate release of five nurses who were abducted by rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) during the attack on Sinje camp. Last week, the rebels issued a statement saying they would let the nurses go soon, but no release has been forthcoming so far.