Lubbers tackles refugee crisis in West Africa

Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has said it was vital to secure a political settlement to the long-running civil war in Liberia in order to end conflicts in neighbouring West African countries, which have forced over two million people to abandon their homes. Speaking at a camp for Liberian refugees at Guiglo in western Cote d'Ivoire, the former Dutch prime minister said: "The most important thing is to work in Liberia for a political solution there...the situation in Liberia is dramatic at the moment." Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was speaking on Sunday at the start of a tour of five West African nations. The tour will also take him to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ghana. Armed factions supported by Liberian President Charles Taylor, were responsible for destabilising Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Diplomats said that more recently armed groups backed by Taylor have aggravated the security situation in both Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. The Liberian leader meanwhile faces an insurrection by rebel group in his own country which has put more than half its territory outside government control. The UNHCR estimates that the conflicts in these countries have created 520,000 refugees in the region. However, this figure merely relates to people who fall under the UNHCR mandate because they have fled from one country to another for fear of persecution. It excludes up to 1.5 million who abandoned their homes in Cote d'Ivoire since a civil war erupted in the once prosperous cocoa and coffee producing country in September last year. Most of these displaced people sought refuge elsewhere within their own country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates a further 500,000 have fled abroad, mainly to neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. However, since these victims of conflict are mainly Burkinabe, Malian and Guinean immigrants to Cote d'Ivoire, or the children of such immigrants, they are officially regarded as "returning nationals" rather than refugees. They are not therefore covered by UNHCR's official mandate. More than 200,000 internally displaced people within Liberia, most of them living in camps around the capital Monrovia that have been repeatedly attacked by armed men looking for food and military recruits, are also excluded from the official UNHCR headcount of refugees in West Africa. Lubbers, who visited the region two years ago, shortly after he took up his UNHCR post, said that he would point out to Taylor during talks in Monrovia that the humanitarian situation in Liberia had deteriorated since then and would ask him what he planned to do about it. "We will compare notes on what it was like in Liberia two years ago and how it is today...the time has come to do better than two years ago, so that people can go home,"Lubbers said. Guiglo camp plays host to 9,000 Liberian refugees, some of whom have been in Cote d'Ivoire since Taylor launched a guerrilla war to topple his predecessor Samuel Doe 14 years ago. However, UNHCR officials and camp residents said the settlement of palm thatched mud huts had recently become a recruiting ground for armed factions fighting in support of Cote d'Ivoire's army on the Ivorian side of the border. Lubbers said this situation could not be allowed to continue. "We cannot afford to see the militarisation of refugee camps, It would just be going in the wrong direction," he said. But the UNHCR boss added that the only real solution to this problem was to secure an end to conflict in the region. A negotiated political settlement in Liberia was the key to this. After talks with Ivorian government leaders in Abidjan on Monday, Lubbers was due to fly to Ghana on Tuesday before meeting Taylor in Liberia on Wednesday. He is then due to visit Sierra Leone and Guinea before returning to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva on Friday night.