Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Liberian refugees in Ghana: Protests are only tip of the iceberg

On February 19, a group of women refugees from Liberia began a sit-in protest on a soccer pitch directly in front of the Buduburam refugee camp, which lies just west of the capital Accra. The women were demanding immediate resettlement to third countries, or if they were returned to Liberia, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee organization should increase their return grant from $100 to $1000.

After four weeks, the sit-in protest had gathered steam, and the government of Ghana claimed the refugees were violating the public order by blocking traffic and preventing students from attending school. On March 17 police entered the camp and arrested nearly 700 women and children. The government of Liberia condemned the protestors’ unruly” conduct and apologized to the Ghanaian president. (Here’s a second-hand version of the police action.)

Five days after the first arrests, Ghanaian police swept again through the camp, this time searching for men officers had accused of further fomenting dissent, with rumors swirling that they had cached weapons and were trafficking cocaine. (Neither weapons nor drugs were found.) Press reports claimed many of the wanted men had fled to the bush, yet police arrested around 35 people. (Reports from refugees claimed that the arrests were carried out at random.) At least half of those arrested were not registered as refugees, the Ghanaian government claimed, so officials deported 16 people to Liberia, a move that raised the ire of human rights groups and UNHCR.

Civil wars
Liberian refugees first began arriving in Ghana in 1990, and the refugee population exploded later that decade when the country’s civil war broke out full bore. As recently as 2006, 40,000 Liberians were living in the camp. Delegations of the two governments recently met over the refugees’ status and are working out a plan to repatriate the more than 24,000 Liberian refugees still living in the country.

Semantics King jr., a six-year resident of the Buduburam camp, currently lives in Minnesota in the United States. A journalist working in radio, he fled to Ghana in 2000 after receiving death threats. When he was living in the camp, he launched The Vision newspaper, which provided news to refugees and training to young journalists. Since moving to the U.S., he began the New Liberian.

He said the women began the soccer-pitch protest because they had heard the UNHCR was sitting on the money intended to repatriate the refugees back to Liberia. Rumors began spreading through the camp from the Liberian legislature, he said, claiming Sierra Leone refugees currently living in Liberia were to receive $15,000 per family to reconstruct their homes. The women argued that if the UNHCR could spend $15,000 per Sierra Leone family, the organization could easily spend $1,000 per Liberian refugee.

The UNHCR began a voluntary resettlement project in 2004, but very few refugees took the group up on the offer. Most people worried the $100 repatriation fee would not adequately cover resettling in war-scarred Liberia. Other refugees worried about returning to a country where they had no family ties. Continuing ethnic violence is yet another reason so many remain at the camp. Instead of returning to Liberia, some refugees would like to be resettled to a third country, like Canada or the United States.

The heart of the matter
The UNHCR’s resettlement program was not the only factor in the protests, King said. “The conditions of the camp are appalling,” he told me by telephone. “I lived there for six years and I came to realize that UNHCR has done nothing good for the refugees.”

He said that from 1997 to 2003, the UN group all but pulled out of the camp, hoping that refugees would begin resettling after Charles Taylor officially took power after the 1997 election. Since the agency has returned, refugees continue to provide for their own basic needs. “[Refugees] fend for themselves at the camp,” he said. “There is no food. There is no water to take a bath. You have to pay to educate your children.”

Some people questioned why Liberian refugees could not simply repatriate in Ghana, another Anglophone West African country. King says many scoffed at the idea mostly because of the little protection the Ghanaian government has offered refugees. Not only is paying school fees an issue, but he maintains that Ghanaian police often drag their feet when investigating crimes against Liberians, including more than a few grisly murders that have taken place inside and outside the camp. “People in Ghana don’t like the refugees, he said. “How can you talk about integration when there is no protection for refugees?”

One of the reason for the prosecution of refugees, he said, is the Ghanaian press often paints them in a negative light with blatant one-sided reports (another reason he began The Vision). “Until recently no Ghanaian journalist ever set foot in the refugee camp to take a look at what these people were (and are still) going through,” he said. (Here is an example of reporting on the refugee situation in the Ghanaian press.)

With the demands of the refugees hardening, along with the position of the Ghanaian government, the UNHCR has to find a solution soon before the atmosphere at the camp reaches a tipping point. “If they don’t act now,” King said. “And people are allowed to stay in that camp, we are going to hear from very bad things in the next one to three years. The international community really needs to look at the demands of the refugees.”

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