UNHCR to evacuate tens of thousands of refugees trapped in Côte d'Ivoire fighting
GENEVA, 20 Dec. (UNHCR) - A senior UNHCR official today outlined plans to evacuate to safety an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Liberian refugees trapped by fighting in the largely rebel-controlled western region of Côte d'Ivoire.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane said his agency wants to move the Liberians to a nearby West African country.
"Ideally, we would like to take them to a third country in the region, and we have approached a number of countries in this regard. But as a first step, and while we wait for a positive response, we will temporarily relocate them to relative safety in the south of Côte d'Ivoire," he said.
Morjane, who just returned from a week-long trip to West Africa, said UNHCR was in negotiations with the Ivorian government to identify a safe place for the Liberians in the southern coastal region, west of the country's economic capital, Abidjan. He also said the UN refugee agency had approached the French government, which has a contingent of troops in Côte d'Ivoire, to provide security for a possible evacuation.
UNHCR earlier this week sent emergency teams to Côte d'Ivoire to work on the logistical arrangements for the move. One team travelled to Nicla camp, just outside rebel-controlled territory. Team members reported that the population of the camp nearly doubled with frightened refugees from surrounding areas rushing to the camp for safety. They said there were now about 8,000 people in the camp. Morjane said the camp's residents were the most vulnerable and had to be evacuated first.
But the official cautioned that any evacuation would require the consent of both the Ivorian government and rebel groups. "It is also essential that the different parties at war agree to guarantee access and safety for the humanitarian operations in the conflict zones," he said.
UNHCR said it was difficult to tell how many Liberians remain in the west of Côte d'Ivoire. An estimated 32,000 went back to Liberia since the fighting spread to the west three weeks ago. The fighting has also driven 16,000 Ivorian nationals to Liberia.
"The fact that these people are seeking refuge in a country like Liberia, itself unstable and torn by fighting, gives you an idea of present conditions in that part of Côte d'Ivoire," said Morjane.
Morjane said his agency needed $6.1 million in emergency funds to provide assistance to those who have already fled the war, and to enhance UNHCR's preparedness should the situation deteriorate further. The agency has already sent several shipments of urgently needed domestic items to Liberia, and it is stockpiling for 20,000 people in the region.
Morjane praised efforts by African countries and regional bodies to find a political solution for the Côte d'Ivoire crisis, but warned that time was running out. "Whatever is done must be done quickly," he said.