Côte d'Ivoire refugees stuck in Liberia due to Ebola crisis

Halted for several months, the voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees in Liberia was to have resumed in July. However, the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Liberia has led the Ivoirian authorities to close the country's borders to prevent the disease from spreading, suspending refugee returns until further notice.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 12,000 refugees have returned to Côte d'Ivoire since the beginning of January 2014 and 38,600 refugees are waiting for the Ivoirian government to reopen the border to allow them to return home.

On 11 July 2014, some 392 Ivoirian refugees in Liberia who had arrived during the post-election crisis in 2010-2011, were turned back at the border by the Ivoirian authorities, as they prepared to return home in a convoy.

"Before the repatriation was suspended, UNHCR ensured that every refugee had a medical screening both in the country of asylum [Liberia] and in the receiving country through its various medical partners," said Nora Sturm, a public information officer with UNHCR.

Unfortunately, she felt this precaution had been unable to gain the confidence of the Côte d'Ivoire authorities - a situation that forced many refugees to return to the camps, while others continued to live in host communities near the border.

"We left our country because of the war. Now that we want to go home Ebola is stopping us. We just don't know what to do," Alphonse Toé, a refugee originally from Nidrou in western Côte d'Ivoire, said over the phone. "We need our leaders to take up our case quickly," he told IRIN.

He said refugees were getting more and more worried as the media reported new figures on the spread of the disease. "We are hearing every time that the disease is spreading. This is really scary. UNHCR also informs us of the situation and reassures us, but we are concerned. Our government must not abandon us," Toé told IRIN.

As of 14 September Liberia has reported 2,710 Ebola cases and 1,459 deaths. Half of the cases were reported in the past three weeks.

Government spokesperson Bruno Koné said the government was aware of the desire of some refugees to return home but "there are some health and safety issues that have forced us to close the borders. Things will fall into place once the situation improves."

Awareness-raising among refugees

Sturm said UNHCR understands the decisions taken by the Ivoirian government and is contributing to its efforts by implementing Ebola prevention and awareness-raising measures. The organization regularly holds meetings with national and local authorities, refugees and partners involved in the protection of refugees.

"We explain that these measures will help overcome the epidemic in currently affected countries like Liberia, and also strengthen prevention in countries not yet affected but at high risk, such as Côte d'Ivoire," said Sturm.

She said if these measures were not implemented, the epidemic would probably spread to Ivoirian territory.

"The borders will be open again as soon as this epidemic is under control. Refugees are also reminded that the border closure is for all entries. and is not aimed only at the refugees," Sturm told IRIN.

WHO has strongly advised against border closures in at-risk and affected countries as this can cause mounting distrust and fear of authorities which can help further promote the spread of Ebola.

Cote d'Ivoire "not immune"

Ivoirian Health Minister Raymonde Goudou said: "Inter-connections and traditional customs shared by the border populations mean that Côte d'Ivoire is not immune.. Everyone is aware that this serious situation requires strong measures. They are not directed against anyone, but are to protect the entire population."

He revealed that about 100 Liberians had been sent home after they tried to enter Côte d'Ivoire illegally.

To date, no case of Ebola has been reported in Côte d'Ivoire. The authorities, religious leaders, media and mobile companies are spreading awareness messages through the radio, posters and SMS.

The Pasteur Institute in the capital, Abidjan, has the capacity to analyse and detect Ebola samples.

According to the Ministry of Health, several rumours of suspected cases have been reported in Côte d'Ivoire, but only one was isolated - in early September. That was an Ivoirian photographer, aged 43, who was returning from Freetown (Sierra Leone) and had Ebola-type symptoms. He was quarantined in Yamoussoukro general hospital, but the case was negative.

"It's a miracle to see that Côte d'Ivoire is still untouched. The country shares borders with two centres of Ebola [Liberia and Guinea] and above all it has seen significant migration flows with Liberia, where there are thousands of refugees. This means that the government authorities have taken appropriate action to safeguard the country," said Bernard Malan, an analyst with NGO Rights and Democracy, in Abidjan.

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