Aid workers rush to help Ivory Coast refugees flooding into Liberia

Refugees from the Ivory Coast have been streaming across the Liberian border at a rate of roughly 500 per day, according to the United Nations.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo
Supporters of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo raise their hands in a show of support, at a pro-Gbagbo rally in the Yopougon district of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday, Jan. 9. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was shuttling between meetings Sunday with the country's defiant president who refuses to cede power and the internationally recognized winner in the latest effort to resolve the post-election crisis.

Aid workers are rushing to accommodate the more than 22,000 refugees who have fled Ivory Coast for neighboring Liberia since a disputed election on Nov. 28 left the country on the brink of civil war.

Ivorians have been streaming across the Liberian border at a rate of roughly 500 per day since Dec. 1, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency that is leading the effort to build a camp to house them. Nearly two thirds of the registered refugees are under the age of 18.

For the past eight weeks, villagers in eastern Liberia have taken in the refugees, squeezing them into their homes and sharing their provisions. But with so many extra mouths to feed, supplies of food and water are running short, UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said.

RELATED: Ivory Coast, Sudan referendum: Africa stories to look out for in 2011

Speaking by phone from the eastern Liberian village of Saceplea, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that workers began clearing land for a camp on Friday. The UN agency hopes to begin moving refugees into the camp within two weeks, she added, as health conditions in the local villages are deteriorating rapidly.

“We’re seeing people get really, really sick now, and many of them aren’t able to get [medical] treatment,” she said.

Help on the way

The World Food Programme, another UN agency, has supplied five and a half tons of high-energy biscuits, and the government of Liberia has provided nearly two tons of rice, as well as two hand pumps for wells. UNICEF, the UN fund for children, has already vaccinated more than 3,000 children against diseases like polio and yellow fever.

The UN predicts that between 50,000 and 100,000 people will move into the camp before the influx of refugees begins to ebb. About 15,000 of those refugees will likely be Liberian returnees who fled to Ivory Coast several years ago to escape their own civil conflict, according to Edward Kemokai of the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission.

It could be a while

The political situation in Ivory Coast seems to offer little hope for a quick resolution.

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo is refusing to cede power to challenger Alassane Ouattara, who has been recognized as the official winner of the election by the UN, the African Union, the US and the European Union, among others.

Despite promising to pursue a negotiated solution, Gbagbo has taken a hard line, blockading Ouattara’s camp into a single hotel in Abidjan, the country’s capital, and attempting to expel the envoys of Canada and the EU.

The political standoff seems to have already led to violence in the countryside. A leading figure in the opposition, Guillaume Soro, told The Guardian last month that nearly 200 people had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded by gunfire since the election.

Some of the Ivorians who have fled to Liberia say they have been directly threatened with violence, the UNHCR spokeswoman said. But most seem to have abandoned their homes simply out of fear of the conflict that might lie ahead.

RELATED: Ivory Coast, Sudan referendum: Africa stories to look out for in 2011

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