Continued Violence in West Africa Imperils Hundreds of Thousands
The International Rescue Committee says an escalation in fighting in Liberia between government troops and rebels is preventing access to hundreds of thousands of people in need.
The current Liberia situation is "unpredictable, fragile and volatile," according to IRC country director Wubeshet Woldemariam. Heavy fighting in the border areas of Guinea and Ivory Coast in early April forced the IRC to suspend programs in the town of Ganta and evacuate all staff.
Two schools where the IRC ran education programs for internally-displaced children and a health post were closed. Woldemariam said humanitarian agencies have no access or communications to the region right now, so the exact situation there is unknown.
The situation in Bong County is also insecure. Rebels attacked three camps for internally displaced persons last month, causing 50,000 camp residents and locals to flee to nearby Totota town. "Their condition is deplorable," Woldemariam said. "They fled with no time to collect belongings. They just ran away, with nothing." The violence forced the closure of IRC school programs at the camps. Staff members are trying to place the displaced children in Totota schools.
In spite of the unrest, three IRC-supported clinics in Nimba County along the Ivory Coast border remain open. IRC pre-positioned drugs and supplies with the clinics just prior to the latest outbreak of fighting, and clinic staff continue to provide health services, health education and measles immunizations to 250 to 300 locals, refugees and displaced persons per day. However, Woldemariam cautions that the supplies will only last a few more weeks. "With the ongoing fighting, the clinics' continued service is crucial," Woldemariam said. "Our big concern at the moment is what happens if we cannot reach them with additional supplies. The need is enormous."
In Montserrado County, which surrounds Monrovia, IRC programs were briefly suspended after a series of attacks but have since resumed in most of the 10 camps that house some 120,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and 100,000 internally-displaced Liberians. IRC staff members have restarted education and health programs at the camps.
Woldemariam said the war in Liberia, which has been simmering for more than a decade, spread to new areas this year, and 11 of 15 Liberian counties are now inaccessible to humanitarian aid workers. The U.N. is trying to negotiate safe corridors to deliver humanitarian assistance. "Otherwise it is too unsafe for aid work," he said.
The renewed fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Liberians and sent many thousands streaming into the neighboring countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone, which already host large populations of Liberian refugees.
Ivory Coast Unrest Uproots Hundreds of Thousands
Meanwhile, a failed coup in Ivory Coast seven months ago plunged this long stable country into a civil conflict that pits the government against three rebel groups. The violence, in what had been a safe haven for Liberian refugees, has triggered the return of nearly 50,000 Liberian refugees back to their war-torn homeland. With them have come tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees and third country nationals. The United Nations estimates that as many as 800,000 people are internally displaced.
An emergency grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has enabled the IRC to deploy an emergency response team in Ivory Coast to survey water, sanitation, health and education needs. Assessments in the west, north and central areas of the country indicate that the government and local communities are unable to provide for the newly uprooted, particularly children and youth. Schools face a lack of resources to accommodate new students.
The IRC received a grant from the Dibner Fund in April to help two communities hosting large populations of displaced persons extend education services to newly arrived children. The IRC is procuring additional school benches, tables, blackboards and learning materials, and is providing support to community education organizations.
Working with a local partner group, the IRC is also set to implement quick-impact water, sanitation, health and shelter projects in a shantytown in the capital, Abidjan, where many displaced persons have settled.
IRC Aids Newly Arrived Refugee Children in Guinea
Ivorian and Liberian refugees have also crossed into neighboring Guinea by the thousands. With support from the Gates Foundation and UNICEF, the IRC is starting a project to identify refugee children separated from family members and provide emergency assistance.
The IRC has also set up emergency education programs for children and adolescents in the Nzerekore area of Guinea, which is a primary entry point for refugees and Guinean returnees and an area where the IRC has had a longtime presence.
Near Nzerekore, the IRC helped construct the Nonah Camp, which is sheltering newly arrived Ivorian refugees.
The IRC has been working in West Africa for more than 10 years, providing extensive assistance for refugees, displaced persons and war-impacted communities in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone.