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Lubbers urges Ivorian neighbours to keep borders open

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Lubbers urges Ivorian neighbours to keep borders open

3 December 2002

3 December 2002

GENEVA - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, warning of a looming humanitarian crisis, today called on West African countries to keep their borders open to innocent civilians caught in intensified fighting in Côte d'Ivoire.

UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for $6.1 million to respond to emergencies in Côte d'Ivoire and neighbouring countries for three months.

"I urge all the parties to exercise restraint. The situation in West Africa is already bad enough. We cannot afford to see more misery in the region," Lubbers said.

UNHCR is alarmed by reports that basic humanitarian principles are being ignored and that refugees are being drawn to the conflict. "I appeal to all governments in the region to allow free passage to refugees and civilians fleeing violence," Lubbers said.

While incidents of refugees being barred entry into a neighbouring country remain isolated, UNHCR fears that a worsening crisis might prompt governments to seal their frontiers in the event of massive outflows. UNHCR is worried that if fighting spreads further, refugees might be forced to join an exodus from Côte d'Ivoire that could include some of the millions of migrant workers from surrounding countries that are themselves impoverished and unstable.

Côte d'Ivoire has sheltered 70,000 Liberian and 3,000 Sierra Leonean refugees for years. Since fighting broke out on September 19, at least 25,000 refugees and civilians have left Côte d'Ivoire. Of that number, 19,000 Liberian refugees and 2,000 Ivorians went to Liberia, itself torn by rebellion.

Since Friday, about 400 people have arrived daily in Liberia, most of them returning refugees. The arrivals came from the areas of Danané, Man and Toulépleu, where intense fighting has been reported since Thursday. These towns near the border with Liberia and Guinea host around 45,000 of the refugees in Côte d'Ivoire.

UNHCR has been unable to establish contact with refugees in the Danané and Man region or to dispatch staff to the area since last week because of the conflict.