Unrest in Liberia Displaces hundreds of thousands; Many Flee to Guinea and Sierra Leone
|Fighting in Liberia forced these women to flee their homes with their children. (Photo: Timothy Bishop)|
Liberia is once again in the grip of violent conflict and tens of thousands of war-weary people are fleeing for their lives.
Recent estimates indicate hundreds of thousands of Liberians are on the move. Most are seeking shelter in and around refugee camps, abandoned buildings and war-gutted homes and in villages too impoverished to cope. Many are wandering the bush, without shelter from the season's heavy rains. Thousands of others are pouring into neighboring Sierra Leone, along with Sierra Leonean refugees who for years had sought refuge in Liberia to escape civil war in their own country. And many others have escaped to Guinea.
Fighting between Liberian rebels and government forces escalated in April, 2002 and has continued to flare. In May and again in June, rebels attacked two refugee camps and nearby towns where the IRC was providing humanitarian services for refugees, internally displaced Liberians and needy local populations.
IRC staff members were forced to flee, but immediately launched emergency programs in areas where the newly displaced settled. In Ganta, the IRC is supporting health clinics and ensuring they have an adequate supply of medicine and necessary health services. At refugee camps in Montserrado and Bong counties, the IRC is expanding existing emergency education programs, health education and gender-violence prevention work and preparing for primary health care assistance.
"Everyone in Liberia is in dire need, so you can imagine the desperation when already destitute communities have to absorb thousands of new people," says Robert Warwick, who directs the IRC's West Africa programs.
Warwick cited as an example Ganta, where several small schools suddenly became home to thousands of people seeking shelter. "Hundreds of families are crammed into a handful of classrooms and the conditions are appalling," he said. "But for the children who live in this town, the situation is equally devastating. Until we find the resources to build temporary shelter for the displaced, these children can't return to school."
Meanwhile, the violence creeps closer to the capital Monrovia, a city with no working sanitation or water systems that is now teeming with new arrivals. IRC child protection specialists were dispatched to the city to identify the most urgent needs of displaced children. Emergency education, water supply and sanitation assessments have been completed and plans for quick-impact assistance projects are underway.
Next door, Sierra Leone is struggling to recover from a decade of civil war, and at the same time, trying to reintegrate a steady flow of Sierra Leonean refugees returning to their war-destroyed villages. Since the escalation of unrest in Liberia, the pace of return has accelerated. Boats holding three hundred Sierra Leonean returnees or more are arriving every day. The IRC is expanding programs aimed at helping returnees reintegrate and supporting their communities in Bo, Kenema, Kono and outlying districts.
But the unexpected influx of Liberian refugees has created an added strain in Sierra Leone. The United Nations has asked the IRC to open up its temporary resettlement camp in Gerihun, established to shelter displaced and returnee Sierra Leoneans awaiting repatriation, to accommodate the arriving Liberians.
Thus the IRC's shelter, water supply, sanitation, child protection and emergency education programs are being restructured to meet the urgent needs of both populations. In an area where the IRC is a pioneer in assistance for war-separated children, family tracing efforts and assistance for unaccompanied minors are being increased.
"We are making the adjustments to all programs in order to serve both Sierra Leonean returnees and Liberian refugees,” says Bryan Cox, the IRC’s director in Sierra Leone. “But an international community response needs to match this growing and dire crisis,” he said.