Impoverished Liberian villages struggle to cope with refugee influxUNICEF steps up response in affected communities
NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia, 27 January 2011 – Border communities, among the poorest in impoverished Liberia, are being stretched to the limit by the influx of refugees fleeing political violence in Ivory Coast.
"We have given what we have. Now we all have nothing," said Edwin Minnen, the town chief in Tartuo.
Tartuo, in Nimba County, is hosting about 3,500 refugees. "It was fine in the beginning, we welcomed them because they are our brothers and sisters, but now, all the food we had stored has run out," said Minnen.
"Now we are just like the refugees." In some communities, refugees far outnumber locals and many villagers say they cannot provide food or shelter to any more newcomers. Since early December, over 30,000 refugees - 85 percent of them children and women - have streamed into Liberia, dispersed among 32 villages and hamlets in the forest.
Honoke, 14, lost her father to a heart attack on the trek from the Ivory Coast. She, her mother and two siblings now live with a local family of six in Logutua, where it is not unusual to see up to 30 people crowded in a house meant for six.
"For the past month, I have been sleeping outside because there simply isn’t enough space in the house," Honoke said. Other refugees venture deeper into the jungle to find shelter in smaller villages and hamlets. Safe water is becoming increasingly scarce.
On a recent visit to Tartuo, locals said one of town's two water pumps had already broken and the second was only partially functioning due to overuse. Residents and refugees were collecting unsafe water from open wells and creeks.
"Our children are getting sick," said Wonmenkoro Zogbay, a town elder. At a specialised centre treating severely malnourished children in Saniquellie, the capital of Nimba county, two Ivorian children and their mother share one hospital bed. They consider themselves lucky because they are among the ones who live relatively close to a health centre.
For the vast majority of refugees and local residents, health facilities are at least a four hour walk through dense jungle, poor roads and bad bridges. Classrooms too are scarce.
While some Ivorian children have started attending classes after the school day for Liberian students is over, they are still a small minority. "We have over 350 children registered to go to school," said Gbada Emmanuel, "but they have yet to see a classroom."
Yet even before the refugee influx, classes were held outdoors, under a tree, for many Liberian students because there weren’t enough classrooms to accommodate students, explained Emnanuel, who heads the refugee community in Blemiplay.
Working with the Liberian Government and other UN agencies and partners, UNICEF is responding to water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, and primary health needs of refugee and host community populations in the most affected areas.
UNICEF has improved water sources, constructed latrines, and delivered thousands of water purification tablets, soap and jerry cans along the border areas.
UNICEF has also provided vaccines, nutrition and medical supplies to existing facilities to keep vital services running, and is providing support to set up additional sites to expand coverage.
UNICEF is also working to scale up learning and recreational opportunities within child-friendly environments.
"Children are always the most affected by emergencies. It is critical that they have access to clean water and adequate sanitation. They must be protected from the threat of diarrhoea and the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases," said UNICEF Country Representative in Liberia, Isabel Crowley.
"But we must not forget that other services such as education are to re-start as soon as possible, to help children regain a sense of normalcy."
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