Briefing on the humanitarian situation

IRIN has produced a series of briefings exploring the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire triggered by contested elections in November 2010.

With both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara laying claim to the presidency, the bitter political divisions in the country have led to worsening violence. While regional and international bodies have repeatedly called on Gbagbo to step down, neither sanctions nor mediation initiatives have come close to breaking the deadlock. Gbagbo and Ouattara head rival administrations, both trying to maximize their resources and isolate the other party. IRIN’s series of revised briefings takes a look at the handling of the crisis by the UN, regional bodies the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), western governments, and the European Union (EU), while also looking at the economic, human rights and humanitarian consequences of the breakdown.

The humanitarian situation - helping IDPs and refugees

The political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has forced UN agencies and NGOs to adapt swiftly to a scenario which had not been anticipated. The humanitarian focus prior to the elections had been on scaling down emergency operations and concentrating instead on early recovery and development programmes. But the political breakdown in Abidjan has exacerbated existing tensions in several parts of the country, notably the west, creating a new wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees (heading mainly westwards to Liberia). New, often unexpected needs have meant a push for funding and a change in priorities.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has warned of the need for a prompt resolution of the crisis. “Urgent international political action is necessary to resolve the stalemate and restore calm," Guterres told reporters in Geneva on 10 February. "All citizens of Côte d'Ivoire should feel secure at home and no longer forced to flee in search of safety."

The International Office of Migration (IOM) has reported nearly 82,000 people displaced in Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring countries as a result of the crisis, while warning “it is very likely that the true figure is higher.” Those who have moved include 34,500 refugees currently in Liberia and 42,000 IDPs in Duékoué, Man and Danane in the west. In both cases, women and children make up most of those who have moved.

IOM has also noted significant population movements into Mali, with over 2,500 people crossing in recent weeks, more than half of them Malians, others Ivoirian refugees and nationals from 10 different West African countries. Burkina Faso, Guinea and Ghana have all received both returnees and Ivoirians. Human rights groups have warned that nationals from neighbouring countries, including many long-time migrants, and Ivoirians with names identifying them as from Malinké and other predominantly Muslim communities, have been severely victimized during the post-elections violence.

“Past experience dictates that we have to be ready to deal with another migration crisis in the region," Eugenio Ambrosi, the IOM director general's special envoy to Côte d’Ivoire and surrounding countries, has warned.

Inter-communal clashes between Guéré and Malinké communities in and around Duékoué in the west led to houses being burned and looted and forced thousands out of their homes, with Duékoué’s Catholic mission hosting over 12,000 people. Among the relief organizations helping cope with the influx has been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which chlorinated close to 400 wells in the Duékoué area and provided tents, latrines and showers among other items.

Health shortages hit hard

While most of the international focus has been on the violence around Duékoué and the refugee influx into Liberia, there are serious concerns about structural problems, including desperate shortages of medicines and medical personnel and the risks from diseases like cholera, measles and yellow fever.

“There are risks of recurring diseases”, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Information Officer Louis Vignault told IRIN. “We have reached a moment where the humanitarian consequences of the crisis have become clear. Large numbers of health workers have quit their jobs and it has become difficult for the population to get proper medical care.”

One of those gone missing is Antoine Gnagbo, a nurse who had been working in Séguéla, but has been in Abidjan for four months. “I can’t see myself going back to my post until the crisis is over. There is no security and I don’t know how I can work without medicines," Gnagbo told IRIN.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of only 20 percent of qualified health personnel being in place in the west with the overall health system deteriorating. A recent communiqué warned: “Five health centres are closed. There has been no epidemiological surveillance for several months in the west. The pharmacy in the hospital at Man, which has been hit by acts of vandalism, is only partially functional. Vaccine coverage for measles and tetanus, already very feeble, is going to go further down.”

Photo: ReliefWeb

“We need to have an emergency action plan to re-launch the health system,” said WHO representative Mamadou Ball.

During a recent vaccination campaign against yellow fever in the northern towns of Katiola and Ségúela, WHO and UNICEF had to use volunteers from local NGOs. “There is a real danger here,” Vignault explained. “Routine vaccination campaigns have fallen off drastically. We are doing what we can according to our means, but it’s not enough.”

Vignault says serious drug shortages have been recorded in several towns in this part of the country.

Food and transport - the regional impact

The political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has caused not only serious disruption to the local food supply, but has meant a double blow to landlocked neighbours Burkina Faso and Mali, whose food import bills have already been hit by record high prices. The two Sahelian countries remain highly vulnerable to drought, with food productivity in some regions depending entirely on the single rainy season. If the rains fail, only food imports can plug the deficit. Mali and Burkina Faso both depend on Côte d’Ivoire’s Abidjan and San Pedro ports for imports - and the fertile land south of their borders in Cote d'Ivoire - as a key food source.

“The situation in Côte d’Ivoire is having an impact on neighbouring countries because trade flows have been disrupted in Burkina Faso and Mali,” said Jean Senahoun, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS).

“The cost of rice or millet is still anywhere up to US$30 a bag, which is unacceptably high for the population,” Ousseny Savadogo from Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Agriculture told IRIN. He said the government was implementing plans to avoid a repeat of the riots triggered in 2008, when food prices reached a record high on global markets.

“Our problem here is that when the rain doesn’t come then no matter what the government does, we have still lost our crop. We have lost food we would otherwise have. It makes life very hard for us,” Oussein Gnamene, a millet farmer in Ouahigouya, northern Burkina Faso, said.

As when war broke out in Côte d’Ivoire in September 2002, Burkinabe economic operators have looked to send their produce via other ports, notably Lomé in Togo and Tema in Ghana, as access to Abidjan through a divided Côte d’Ivoire has become increasingly complicated. Port authorities in Lomé and elsewhere have offered improved facilities, while Burkinabe Minister of Transportation Gilbert Noel Ouédraogo has approached Senegalese authorities on using Dakar port.

The Burkinabe government has set up a “watchdog group” to permanently evaluate the impact of the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire on economy of the landlocked country.

According to Issoufou Maiga, secretary-general of the national truck-owners association, the Organization des Transporteurs du Faso (OTRAF), truck-owners are now extremely reluctant to send their trucks into Côte d’Ivoire.

Sources: IOM, OCHA, ICRC