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Ivory Coast fighting sparks fresh influx of refugees in Liberia

More than 120,000 people have fled Ivory Coast for neighboring Liberia to escape the violence in their home country. Oxfam warn that their living conditions are 'dangerously inadequate.'

By Paige McClanahanCorrespondent / April 10, 2011

Children arrive at a transit camp for refugees who fled the post-election violence in Ivory Coast, in Zorgowee, Liberia, April 5. More than 125,000 Ivorians have fled to Liberia, while 7,000 have crossed into Ghana, 1,700 into Togo, and about 1,000 into Guinea, according to the UNHCR.

Benoit Matsha-Carpentier/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Reuters

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As Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo continues to hide inside a bunker under the presidential palace in Abidjan, many of his country’s citizens face an even more perilous ordeal.

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Over the past four months, more than 120,000 people have fled Ivory Coast for neighboring Liberia to escape the violence in their home country. A large number of those refugees have now been away from home for months; Oxfam warned recently that their living conditions have become “dangerously inadequate.”

Back in January, I went up to Liberia’s border with Ivory Coast to report on the situation for the Monitor. At the time, some 30,000 refugees had been registered in Liberia. Three months later, the figure has quadrupled.

When I was there, the United Nations and other aid agencies had just begun clearing land for a refugee camp near the dusty town of Bahn, about 30 miles from the border with Ivory Coast. The camp was finished in February; refugees were invited to move in.

But so far only 2,500 people have chosen to settle in the camp, even though it was built to accommodate six times that many. The rest are staying near the border, filling into the homes of Liberian villagers who, for the most part, have welcomed them with open arms.

All of that neighborliness isn’t making life any easier for aid workers trying to reach the swelling population of refugees, who are straining the resources of the Liberians a little bit more each day. The refugees are scattered across 90 villages near the border. Roads in the region are narrow and deeply rutted, so travel is painfully slow.

“The border areas are dangerous, and living conditions there are desperately poor,” Oxfam’s Liberia country director, Chals Wontewe, said in a press release last month. “Despite the gravity of the situation, it is not getting the attention or funding it deserves.”

Liberia is no stranger to this kind of crisis; it suffered through 14 years of off-and-on civil war that only came to an end in 2003. Now, there are fears that the Ivorian violence could spill over the border and destabilize the country’s fragile peace.

Back in Monrovia in February, I interviewed Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I asked her, among other things, what she would say to Gbagbo if she could sit down with him for 20 minutes.

She paused at the question, then took a breath.

“I would say, ‘Please consider the experience and the tragedy of Liberia,’ " she told me.

“When a country descends into conflict, the damage that is done is so profound. It's not worth any one person; it's not worth the destruction of your country,” she said. “It's so easy to destroy but so hard to rebuild.”

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