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At a glance: Liberia

Thousands of Ivorians flee political crisis, seeking refuge in Liberia

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2756/Diggs
Dan Woulie, 3, the youngest unaccompanied child registered so far among the Ivorian refugees in northern Liberia, is staying with another refugee family until his family is traced from across the border.

By Miraj Pradhan and Bill Diggs

NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia, 28 December 2010 – Wonyen Basee, 12, describes her family’s ordeal – a three-day walk through the bush and across the border into Liberia – in wake of violence that has followed the presidential run-off in her native Côte d’Ivoire last month.

Wonyen is among the thousands of Ivorians – most of them children and women – who have fled since the elections took place. “There were many people walking with us. We ran away because we were afraid that the rebels would come to beat us,” she says.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission have registered more than 15,000 Ivorians in Liberia during the past three weeks. The refugees are living with Liberian host families, but many of the host communities are already overburdened.

Humanitarian response

The refugee agency and the government are coordinating a multi-sectoral humanitarian response to the influx, based on a contingency plan that was developed months ago. Along with non-governmental organizations, they are working to ensure that services and supplies quickly reach those in need.

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UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer Kortima Wataku works with partners in Nimba County, Liberia, where UNICEF is promoting safe hygiene and sanitation in areas affected by an influx of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire.

Essential items being distributed to refugees and host families include cooking pots, blankets, soap, mosquito nets and mats. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme is expediting food distribution in affected areas, and the World Health Organization is working with the Ministry of Health to increase health-care services.

UNICEF is coordinating the crisis response for nutrition, water and sanitation, child protection and education, in partnership with relevant government ministries, Save the Children and other civil society partners.

“There are more than 22 settlements hosting refugees, and it is quite a challenge to provide all communities with safe drinking water and sanitation facilities and other services due to bad road conditions,” notes UNICEF Water and Sanitation Specialist Sam Treglown. “We’re trying our best to reach the communities as early as possible.”

Deteriorating conditions

Most people in the communities along the border of northern Liberia and southern Côte d’Ivoire belong to the same ethnic group and speak a similar dialect. In fact, many of the Ivorian families are related to their Liberian counterparts through marriage, explains Victor G. Warleh, chief of Kissiplay town in Nimba County.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2753/Diggs
Officials at Liberia's Bureau of Immigration register asylum seekers from Côte d'Ivoire. most of them women and children.

“They are like our own people,” he says. “We speak the same language and we are happy to host them, but they should work with us in the farms so that we produce enough food for everyone.”

Notwithstanding the hospitality of local Liberians, living conditions in the host communities are deteriorating. As many as 20 people – including men, women and children – must sleep together in small rooms, and a substantial number of refugee children are malnourished. Others are suffering from malaria and diarrhoea. Many pregnant women and lactating mothers are among the refugees, as well.

Hope for peace

More than 60 per cent of the Ivorian refugees are under the age of 18, according to the UN refugee agency. Many of them are unaccompanied.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2754/Diggs
Gomou Notia, a 100-year-old Liberian woman, is providing shelter for some of the Ivorian refugees in Douplay, Nimba County.

“I was playing and I saw many people in line walking by, so I followed them,” Dan Woulie, 3, told a UNICEF assessment team. Dan is the youngest unaccompanied child registered so far. A refugee family is looking after him until his family can be traced from across the border.

Seven years have passed since the end of the 14-year civil conflict in Liberia, and news of the violence in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire is a cause of concern for many people here. Still, Gomou Notia, 100, is happy to host a young Ivorian family in Douplay, on the Liberian side of the border.

“We are trying our best to share what we have with our guests, but we do not have enough food to last for long,” says the centenarian. “I have seen a lot in my days. All I hope and pray now is for peace in our land.”



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