Thursday, 16 December 2010

Refugees in border areas on the rise as Cote d'Ivoire uncertainly continues

Alassane Ouattara is recognised as winning the Cote d'Ivoire Presidential Election

Ivoirians are leaving the Cote d'Ivoire for Liberia at a rate of around 150 people per day as political uncertainty continues in the wake of November's presidential election, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Fearing political violence or even civil war, thousands of people have left Cote d'Ivoire and are settling in Liberian border villages.

The country's Independent Election Commission originally declared opposition leader and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara the winner in November's Presidential runoff. The Commission, which is run by an ally of the president, overturned the result after declaring some of the results from the largely Ouattara-supporting north to be fruadulent. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has since been declared the victor, although the international community considers Ouattara the rightful winner.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution last week formally recognising Ouattara as the winner of the elections. US President Barack Obama echoed the Security Council in warning Gbagbo of repercussions if he refused to step aside.

The Cote d'Ivoire was once seen as a haven for peace and prosperity in West Africa, until civil war broke out in 2002. Armed rebellion by northerners, who felt they were being discriminated against, caused the country to be effectively split in two, with the north controlled by the New Forces (NF), and the south by the government.

Peace was agreed in 2007, and a leader of the NF, Guillaume Soro, became prime minster, while Gbagbo remained president. The tension after the November elections therefore prompts memories of the civil war, and many fear that fighting will break out again. Numerous supporters of Ouattara have said they are being threatened by Gbagbo supporters.

The majority of people fleeing the country are women and children, and many have come with little more than the clothes on their back. The UNHCR has said, “They urgently need food, clean water, sanitation facilities, clothing and basic hygiene items.”

Ethnic and family links means that many people living in western Cote d'Ivoire have relatives across the border, and most refugees are not living in tents, but with family members. Liberia has refused to set up refugee camps, and for now, Ivoirians are settling peacefully in border villages, although whether peace can be maintained is yet to be seen.

Before the current crisis, UNHCR was assisting 13,000 Ivorian refugees. Most of them – about 6000 – are in Liberia, but there are significant groups also in Guinea and Mali. The UNHCR said "As of Saturday [11th December], an estimated 3,500 people had entered Liberia with new arrivals reported in villages along the border at a rate now of around 150 people per day."

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has warned Liberians, especially ex-fighters and rebels, who are often still present in the border regions, to stay out of the Ivorian crisis.

Sources: Liberian Observer, Mail & Guardian Online, BBC News

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