UN refugee agency mounts response to crisis in Cote d'Ivoire

15:05, January 29, 2011      

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The political crisis in Cote d'Ivoire has caused the displacement of many Ivorians from their homes and country, prompting humanitarian agencies like the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to increase their aid engagements in Cote d'Ivoire and neighboring countries.

Francis Kpatinde, UNHCR senior regional public information officer for West Africa, told Xinhua in a recent interview via e- mail about the developing situation for Ivorian internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who have fled to surrounding countries, mostly to Liberia.

THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND

The current crisis in Cote d'Ivoire began with run-off presidential elections on Nov. 28 of last year. Both candidates, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara claimed to have won, though the international community, including the UN, supports Ouattara as the rightful victor of the election. Gbagbo's refusal to give up his claim to the presidency has led to protest and violence on the streets as well as the blockade of the Ouattara government inside Abidjan's Golf Hotel.

In response to violence and unrest, many Ivorians have escaped to the west to Liberia. Kpatinde said as of Jan. 26 there are currently 31,339 Ivorian refugees in Liberia, and that the weekly rate of arrival is 1,000 people.

Kpatinde said that "for both IDPs and refugees, the most urgent needs are protection, shelter, food, health, water and sanitation. "

According to UNHCR, many of the refugees to Liberia are women and children. Kpatinde explained that these demographics are often considered "vulnerable persons" by humanitarian groups.

"In the case of children, their immune system is not very developed so they can be easily exposed to disease outbreaks," she said. "Children also need special care and attention when there is large displacement of population and some are either unaccompanied or separated from their parents. As for women, they have special needs such as sanitary kits while single mothers with no source of income will rely mainly on humanitarian assistance for survival."

UNHCR'S RESPONSE

UNHCR has increased its presence in impacted areas of Cote d' Ivoire and Liberia since the post-election situation became tense and uncertain.

"The UNHCR Office in Liberia was scaling down its operations when the emergency started at the end of November 2010," Kpatinde said. "With the support of HQ in Geneva, we have received emergency support staff from other UNHCR offices most of whom are now deployed in the influx areas. The priorities of the office include funding, staff accommodation in the field, and logistics such as vehicles."

UNHCR got to work registering refugees in conjunction with the Liberian government and has been distributing essential supplies in Liberian villages. The agency has run aid airlifts to refugees in Liberia and is in the process of building a camp for them.

"In Liberia, Ivorian refugees are currently living in host communities while a camp is being cleared where they will be relocated in the coming weeks," Kpatinde said. "The first batch of Liberian refugees will be settled there as soon as the basic facilities and services are in place."

Kpatinde explained that UNHCR has also been helping IDPs within Cote d'Ivoire. In the city of Duekoue, for example, 13,000 to 15, 000 IDPs are living in a Catholic relief compound in difficult conditions. UNHCR and its partners are helping to provide the IDPs there with health care, water, food, and sanitation.

On Jan. 18, UNHCR launched an appeal of 43.8 million U.S. dollars to cover its projects helping Ivorian IDPs and refugees, in addition to other operations in West Africa.

IVORIAN "BROTHERS" AND "SISTERS"

The Liberian response to the influx of refugees in their country has been "very hospitable" Kpatinde noted.

"After discussions with the UNHCR, the government of Liberia has accepted the Ivorians as refugees on a prima faciae basis and also accepted the establishment of camps," she said. "The initial policy of the government was for the refugees to stay in host communities around the border areas."

Most Ivorian refugees in Liberia currently occupy 26 villages in Nimba County, where Liberians have been generous enough to host them in their homes.

Kpatinde said that many Liberians can still remember time they spent in Cote d'Ivoire as refugees.

"Others share the same culture, most of the time speak the same language, have the same beliefs," she said. "Though resources are scarce, people share what they have with refugees, particularly when they consider them as 'brothers' and 'sisters.'"

Source: Xinhua
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