A long wait for home – how Ebola kept refugees stuck in Liberia

أليكسيس أديل

Journalist based in Abidjan

Nearly 38,000 Ivorian refugees living in Liberia have been unable to return home since July 2014, when Cote d’Ivoire closed its borders with Liberia due to the Ebola outbreak.

"The refugees, they themselves, just want to go home,” said Kassim Diagne, a representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Liberia. 

The majority of the refugees have been living in camps in neighboring Liberia since between 2010 and 2011, following Cote d’Ivoire’s post-election violence, which left more than 3,000 people dead and over a million people displaced. 

An estimated 220,000 Ivorians fled to Liberia, where they took refuge in one of six refugee camps. 

By March 2014, all but 46,000 had returned home and three of the camps had been closed down. UNHCR says it had plans to repatriate an additional 16,000 refugees by the end of the year.  

But then Ebola came. 

"These past eight months have been the most painful that I ever experienced,” said 49-year-old Robert Bah Diézon, who fled to Liberia from the town of Guiglo in western Cote d’Ivoire three years ago. He was one of 400 refugees who were on their way to Cote d'Ivoire from the camps on the eve of the border closure.

“We were so close to returning…and then we were informed that the convoy was suspended because of the Ebola outbreak. I thought that my world would fall apart,” he told IRIN by phone.

Fear of stigma

Authorities said this week that some of the refugees could finally begin to return home in April, now that there have been no new cases of Ebola in Liberia for more than three weeks. 

Many say that this will be a long-awaited relief, but that they are also afraid of how they will be received by friends, family and neighbors when they arrive.

"We know that our family in Cote d’Ivoire are aware of the damage that Ebola has caused in Liberia,” Diézon said.  “For those of us who are returning to our country, there really is something to worry about in terms of stigma during the first days our return.”

Ivorians share these concerns. While many say they are ready to welcome back their loved ones and that they are looking forward to seeing them for the first time in many years, there are also concerns that the refugees could bring Ebola with them.

"Fear is natural, given the devastation that Ebola has caused in neighboring countries,” said Gaspard Bleu, a 68-year-old retired civil servant who lives in Cote d’Ivoire’s western city of Tai. “Soon we will receive our relatives who lived in infected areas for more than seven months, and so we just hope that the control measures adopted by the authorities will enable us to quickly dispel any reservations that we have of one another.” 

A slew of prevention measures

To help address these concerns, UNHCR says it has taken a number of preventative measures, including conducting health risk assessments of all refugees wishing to repatriate and educating local communities about Ebola to reduce the risk of stigmatization. 

"UNHCR, in coordination with local authorities, our partners and community-based organizations, have been conducting outreach activities for a while now on the subject of Ebola in different towns and villages in the main areas of refugee return," said Nora Sturm, a UNHCR information officer in Cote d’Ivoire.

Authorities say that all refugees will be monitored for any signs of sickness in the lead-up to their departure. Any camp resident suspected of having contracted Ebola will be isolated in units that have been set up inside each camp. 

Upon arrival in Cote d’Ivoire, they will undergo a medical exam by local doctors. 

With these additional measures now in place, UNHCR say it’s now time for the refugees to be allowed back home. 

“There has never been a single case of Ebola among the refugees in the camps and [Liberia] is on track to defeat the epidemic,” Diagne told IRIN. “We believe that conditions are conducive to the resumption of voluntary repatriation.”

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