Humanitarian workers in Liberia are warning they may not have enough food for the thousands of refugees who have fled gunfire north of the capital, Monrovia, in recent weeks. Refugees have continued trickling into the capital and over the border into neighboring Sierra Leone.
United Nations officials estimate as many as 60,000 refugees may have been forced to flee. Most of them, in panic and fear after hearing gunfire in what the Liberian government says have been battles between soldiers loyal to President Charles Taylor and rebels.
Food distribution continued Thursday north of Monrovia where refugees have been lining up for rations of rice and other staples.
Officials with the World Food Program WFP) are warning the supplies currently on hand may only be enough to feed the refugees through June. The officials say part of the problem is it typically takes up to five months from the moment an international donor makes a pledge, to the time that the food is delivered to the refugees.
A WFP official, Ramin Rafirasme, says much of the world's attention at this time is on the plight of refugees in Afghanistan and not on those here in the West Africa region.
"Over six million people in Afghanistan are in need of international help. They need and they deserve and they should be assisted. [But] We have a dramatic situation here. We have tens of thousands of people in need of assistance. I can tell you, by June, we won't be able to do that. Peace is making a fragile comeback in Sierra Leone, finally. Now is the time to help people to go back and start a normal life," he said.
U.N. officials have voiced concerns that thousands of refugees from Liberia are going into areas of Sierra Leone that have not been under government control for years areas that have no infrastructure.
Liberia remains under U.N. sanctions imposed due to accusations that the administration of President Charles Taylor was supporting efforts to destabilize governments in the region. The sanctions, along with growing public discontent at home, have put pressure on the Taylor government. Some critics have accused Mr. Taylor of using the latest unrest in his country to try to garner sympathy abroad.
Ross Mountain of the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva, visited Liberia this week. He is urging the international community to put its differences with the Taylor government aside and send aid to those who are suffering on the ground. "I think it's important to underline that whatever the cause of this, and whatever the appreciation some external donors may have of the current government of Liberia, there is an acute humanitarian need for those who are caught in it. There may be something in the order of 60,000 people, and there may be more," he said.
Out of 162 nations, the U.N. ranks Liberia as the second to the worst in the world in terms of health, life-expectancy, and education. The only nation rated as having worse living conditions on the globe is Sierra Leone.