Refugee upsurge brings Ivorian woes to Liberia

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 10:55 AM

By Alphonso Toweh

ZODRU, Liberia, March 15 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of refugees from violence in Ivory Coast are spilling across the border into Liberia, straining the food supplies of communities that barely have enough to eat at the best of times.

Yet this humanitarian and security crisis in the making comes as the world's gaze has been firmly fixed on uprisings further north in Africa, so international appeals for urgent aid funding have gone largely unanswered so far, aid workers say.

"The city has been overtaken by the refugees here," said Felton Blayee, assistant chief of the town of Zodru, around a kilometre (mile) from the Ivorian border and whose population has swollen from 500 to 2,000 with the refugees.

"What is common is that we are all suffering from (lack of ) water and food ... When they came, the little we had, we shared with them. That has finished now."

A disputed November election in Ivory Coast has pushed the country to the brink of a new civil war, with Laurent Gbagbo rejecting results showing rival Alassane Ouattara won.

Hundreds have already died in street clashes or been picked off by shadowy death squads in the ensuing battle for power. An outbreak of fighting in western Ivory Coast between pro-Gbagbo forces and rebels who back Ouattara has in the space of a few weeks pushed the number of refugees in Liberia up to 90,000.

In Zodru and other Liberian towns near the border, an uneasy solidarity holds between the Ivorians and their hosts, in some cases sharing a single water hand pump per village and squeezed into houses holding up to 20 eople.

Yet the strain on sanitation and water has been declared critical in some places, with the inevitable cases of diarrhoea and malaria being reported. Indications that many refugees are carrying sexually transmitted illnesses are also being checked.

"There is the Cesto River here, but people do not drink that water. The main problem here is water, health and food," local Red Cross official James G. Doe said.

DONORS WANTED

Some refugees are trying to fend for themselves by seeking food such as cassava in the bush, but many are too scared of

fighters. Most of those interviewed by

of pro-Ouattara rebels.

The region is used to conflicts triggering huge movements of refugees, with thousands fleeing their homes during Liberia's own civil war of 1989-2003. But late last year, most observers thought Ivory Coast was less of a concern than Guinea, which ultimately managed to muddle through a tense election period.

The aid effort in Liberia has mostly been hamstrung by underfunding, with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) complaining last week that it had received just $5 million from donors following an appeal for $46 million made in mid-January.

"The money is coming very slowly," Myriam Houtart, assistant representative for the UNHCR regional office in Dakar, Senegal.

"Libya is taking a lot of attention, that makes it very difficult. there is Japan," she said of the insurgency against Muammar Gaddafi and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that triggered a 100-country aid effort.

A few thousand Ivorians found shelter in refugee structures, Houtart said, with others in local villages or the open air.

NEIGHBOURS GETTING WORRIED

Aid workers have rushed to set up emergency transit points aimed at getting refugees away from the porous border where in some cases they are separated from former attackers by little more than a shallow river demarcating the national boundary.

"You can see the fighters on the side of the border," said Gleoulou Christophe pointing across the Cesto River. "If they want to come here, it will take them less than a minute."

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's government has resisted calls from refugee groups and others to set up border patrols.

Alongside the existing 15,000-capacity Bahn camp 60 km (40 miles) from the border, a second camp is due to be completed soon and a further four planned for construction.

Aid agencies are currently forecasting a rise in numbers to 150,000, with a worse-case scenario of quarter of a million.

So far Ivory Coast's other neighbours have seen only hundreds of refugees. The UNHCR's Houtart said preparations were being made to help Ghana if fighting in Abidjan sent residents fleeing to the eastern border.

Fears of contagion from the Ivorian crisis are growing.

"We had an experience in the past in which a revolution started in Liberia, and ended up affecting most of the Mano River Union," Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma told Reuters, referring to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

"The pace things will move in terms of knock-on effect is quicker than you imagine."

(Writing and additional reporting by Mark John in Dakar; Simon Akam in Freetown; Editing by Tim Cocks)