Monday, March 10, 2008

Should I stay or should I go: The question facing Liberian refugees in Ghana

A friend who was in Ghana last week asked me “do you know why the Liberian refugees are protesting in Accra?” I had heard nothing about it, but apparently the people of Accra have heard plenty.

A group of refugees demonstrating at the Buduburan camp claim they are dead set against integrating into Ghanaian society and would like to be resettled somewhere else, preferably a western country. For those refugees willing to voluntarily return to Liberia, they demand to receive $1000 to do so. The Ghanaian government issued a statement condemning the demonstration, which according to Vibe Ghana, has closed all schools in the camp and halted food distribution for neglected populations. (I can’t confirm this.)

Liberian refugees have lived in Ghana since 1990. Today, Buduburan, just outside the metropolis of Accra, is home to some 24,000 Liberian refuges spread out over 141 acres. As of December 2007, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, admitted it is promoting the idea that the Liberians may be better off remaining in Ghana and integrating into the community. (Ghana hosts the largest refugee population in West Africa, mostly Liberians and Togolese.)

Voluntary repatriation
UNHCR did launch a voluntary repatriation program in 2004, but it has been fraught with problems. Geography, for one. Ghana and Liberia are separated by Cote d’Ivoire (and Guinea, for those returning to the North West part of the country), making it complicated to for refugees to return home. (A group of refugees returning to Liberia by a convoy of vehicles were stranded at the border between Mali and Guinea because the Guinean government – themselves a host of many refugees – refused the group entrance into the country.) This forced the UNHCR to consider returning Liberian refuges by plane or by boat, which they began late in 2004.

According to a 2007 story in the Vision, a newspaper printed in Buduburan refugee camp, the simple truth is that some refugees don’t want to return to Liberia.

“How do you expect me to go back to a country where I have nobody alive, no place to stay, and no basic skills to improve my life?” wondered a 20-year-old Charles Willie who said his parents were killed in 1996 during a factional battle for control of Monrovia city center.

“I will never go back to Liberia and if the Government of Ghana and the UNHCR won’t support me [I have been here for the past 10 years without support from any of them] here once there is life, there is hope,” he added.

For some refugees, they have been surviving in a delicate limbo. This is from a story originally published in the NYU (New York University) Livewire, and reprinted in the Vision:

For many, Liberia is by now a distant, wild unknown. Others are spooked by rumors, memories and failed attempts to repatriate.

Christian Doebo, Jr., a 28-year-old orphan who fled Liberia alone and on foot when he was 12, said he’ll never go back.

“The only thing I remember about Liberia is rebels burning down our house and abducting my parents,” he said. But he scoffed at the idea of settling in Ghana. “If you don’t speak [the local language] Twi, you don’t move, you don’t have work, you are not in their society.”

Edison Padjibo, a Research Fellow at the University of Education in Central Ghana at Winneba, himself a refugee in Buduburam since 1990, told the Vision that the UNHCR helped create this problem with its policies of double-standards: While the UNHCR urged Liberians to return, at the same the UN body encouraged resettlement to third countries of asylum, notably to the United States of America and Canada.

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