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Burkinabe Immigrants Flee Ivory Coast - 2001-09-11

Nationals of the West African nation of Burkina Faso continue to flee neighboring Ivory Coast, citing what they say is recurring harassment by Ivorian police forces. Last month, the U.S.-based human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, issued a report accusing the government of Ivory Coast of inciting xenophobia against Burkinabe immigrants. The report accused Ivorian police forces of targeting immigrants for abuse.

Hundreds of people piled into the aging, dirty coaches of this train that makes the 36-hour trip three times a week between Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, and the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. Amid the hawkers on the platform selling bread, soap, cassava, and other items, the immigrants fight for seats aboard the train. The railroad office in Abidjan has sold more tickets than there are seats.

Some immigrants tell me they prefer to take the train instead of buses because, they say, there are fewer police checkpoints along the railroad than there are on the highway. Police harassment and intimidation, according to some aboard this train, is what they are trying to get away from. At two stops along the way, police officers board the train. They go down the aisle, row by row, demanding money from passengers.

Moussa, a 40-year-old Burkinabe returnee, is indignant. He says he has all of his documents in order, yet an Ivorian police agent forces him to pay a fine or get off the train. The agent gives no explanation why Moussa must pay, and he gives no receipt.

He says, "You have seen that. Truly, here that is what they want to take everything from us who are from Burkina. How much we have to pay them. 5,000, 10,000, that they take." Moussa says, "That is not right. I have all my papers. My legal residence card, my immunization certificates, my train ticket. But he took my money anyway."

Moussa, like other Burkinabe returnees on the train, is going home with large amounts of cash that he has saved from months or years of working as a laborer in Ivory Coast. The agents know the immigrants have money on them. A reporter asked the agent who took Moussa's money why he demands money from poor immigrants. Requesting that he not be named, he does not deny what he has done. He offers an explanation.

He says, "As an agent with seniority, I have a salary of 80,000 West African Francs, [the equivalent of just over $100 a month] and I have 11 children. You know, African families are large. So," he says, "truly, with that salary and as a father of 11 children, it is truly difficult. And our salaries have not been paid. We have salaries due to us that go back three months."

He does not consider his demand for money from Burkinabe immigrants harassment of foreigners. It is his opinion that Ivory Coast welcomes people from other countries. He says allegations that xenophobia exists in Ivory Coast against Burkinabes are unfounded. He says the mere fact that Ivory Coast has allowed so many people from Burkina Faso into the country to work should be enough to prove this.

"You know, that is a problem that has to do with politics," the agent continues. "What work could [these people] get over there [in their home country]. So they have to come here for economic reasons. I do not see that xenophobia that people are talking about. It is false. They are all here. So those who say that do not know the reality of things."

Ivory Coast, whose economy is relatively strong compared with those of its neighbors, has traditionally been a magnet for workers from other West African in search of jobs. The latest census figures show one third of Ivory Coast's people are nationals of other countries, with Burkinabes making up the largest percentage of the foreign population.

The presence of Burkinabe immigrants in Ivory Coast is not a recent phenomenon. It was Burkinabe workers who nearly 100 years ago labored in the construction of the railway we are travelling on. Since the days of French colonial rule, the railroad has been vital for the transport of timber and other raw materials to the coast. Hundreds of thousands have used it to migrate from Burkina Faso, a landlocked, drought-stricken country.

Falling prices of cocoa, Ivory Coast's main export, mismanagement and corruption have contributed to a severe economic decline and a rise in political tensions in the country, which was once seen as a model for stability and prosperity in the region. Ivorian politicians - faced with mounting public discontent - have in recent years resorted to placing the blame on foreign immigrants. This sentiment was exacerbated by former President Henri Konan Bedie, who in 1995 began promoting the idea of Ivoirite, or being Ivorian, drawing distinctions between native Ivorians and those of foreign descent. Mr. Bedie was deposed in 1999 in the country's first-ever military coup. The governments that have followed have continued to take actions that have fueled anti-immigrant sentiments.

In January, the administration of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo accused foreign powers of backing what he said was a failed coup attempt in Ivory Coast. The statement unleashed a series of mob attacks against Burkinabes and other foreigners living in Ivory Coast, prompting the start of an exodus to Burkina Faso.

The number of Burkinabe immigrants returning to their home country has tapered off since January, but those returning now are citing the same reasons given by those who left earlier this year. The harassment, they say, continues.

Riding the train is 29-year-old Bonaparte Ouedraogo who left Burkina Faso three years ago to work in Abidjan as a hardware salesman. Now, he says he is returning to Ouagadougou knowing that he will not make as much money there as he did in Ivory Coast. He says police harassment in Abidjan became too much for him to bear. He says agents often demanded to see his documents and forced him to pay money, even if his papers were in order. He says he was beaten on more than one occasion.

"It happened to me often. That is why I have decided to go home. I know that in my own country I will not suffer like that. There, as long as I abide by the laws, I can be on the street and move around as I wish. I can be free," Mr. Ouedraogo says, "I have never broken any laws [in Ivory Coast]. I do not know why they stop me. I do not understand any of it. Even if I do not make much money in my country, I would at least not suffer the kind of mistreatment that I did back there [in Ivory Coast]. I prefer to be poor in my own country and live in peace than to be rich with all those difficulties. For me," he says," dignity comes first."

The train crosses the small river that divides Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Mr. Bonaparte looks out the window at a landscape that is relatively arid and sparsely farmed, compared to Ivory Coast. "Since we crossed the border, I have felt happy," said Mr. Bonaparte. "I feel satisfied. I feel at ease. I can breathe again."

The government of Burkina Faso has long denounced what it says is mistreatment of its nationals by authorities in Ivory Coast. Burkinabe officials hoped to draw world attention to the matter by issuing a complaint at this month's World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa.