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Liberian Refugees in Western Ivory Coast Voice Fear for Safety - 2003-05-12

Liberian refugees in western Ivory Coast are asking the United Nations to move them elsewhere.

Several hundred Liberian children at the Nicla refugee camp Sunday sang "No Protection, We Want to Go" as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers paid them a visit.

The children held small signs that read "A Refugee Should Live Without War", and "Do You Want Me to Perish Before Evacuation", and "Keep Your Gun I am a Child".

The camp is located in western Ivory Coast, about 100 kilometers from the border with Liberia. Most of the children arrived in the camp as babies after their parents fled the war in Liberia. Others arrived just a few days ago from Liberia or other parts of western Ivory Coast where sporadic fighting continues despite a cease-fire.

In another part of the camp, which refugees call Peacetown, girls pump water to use for cooking. The refugees have plenty of water and food, and the camp seems tranquil.

But some refugees say young men in the camp were recently recruited by the Ivorian army to fight against rebels operating near the border with Liberia. They add that before Mr. Lubbers' visit, the new recruits were told not to wear their army uniforms while the U.N. official was at the camp.

Inside the camp's main hall, the U.N. high commissioner said he is looking at several options to make the lives of the Liberian refugees secure again. He said he finds the reports of military recruitment very worrisome.

"We cannot afford to see the militarization of refugee camps, it would be just going in the wrong direction," emphasized Mr. Lubbers. "The permanent solutions, for me, the most important one for the refugees is to give them a chance to go back to Liberia. It is really the first priority now. The second solution might be resettlement in countries far away. The third is to find solutions again in Cote d'Ivoire, when we have peace in Cote d'Ivoire."

As Ambassador Lubbers was speaking, a scuffle broke out between women and Ivorian army soldiers accused by the refugees of abusing them.

Anelson Ngabe, a young adult Liberian said the scene is typical of what the refugees deal with on a daily basis.

"I think when the security of the government comes to secure the situation, they should be polite to us, but not kicking people, slapping people," said Mr. Ngabe. "You are supposed to be here for us. Why are you carrying on these activities? It is dangerous. When you are talking about insecurity, we do not have rights in the country, we do not have access to anything."

Mr. Ngabe said that many Ivorians now view Liberians as troublemakers and make their life very difficult.

Moses Kar Kar, who identifies himself as a former youth leader in Liberia, said the plight of the refugees has become much worse since fighting broke out in the area last year.

"Here we are facing a lot of problems here now," explained Mr. Kar Kar. "The Ivorian citizens are threatening us and the rebels are threatening us so it is time that we are taken from here. They do not have to wait until we are massacred, before they will regret the incident. So we are asking you people to please get us out from here. It is very serious because all night long there are people shooting all around. We do not know who is who. There is our fear."

Not all the Liberians at the camp are refugees or army recruits. Some are Liberian immigrants who were working elsewhere in Ivory Coast and came to defend the camp when they heard U.N. staff had been evacuated late last year.

Other Liberians with working papers also sought refuge at the camp because they had been persecuted in Ivory Coast since the start of the conflict.

Lee George Davis was a disc jockey in Abidjan who came to Nicla for both reasons. He says he hopes everyone at the camp could be moved elsewhere to start a new life.

Mr. Davis said he hopes the Liberian refugees could be moved to an English-speaking country outside West Africa.

"If the camp is going to move somewhere else, we want to leave this country to go to a developing country to live a better life," he said. "I want to go to college because I finished high school. We prefer living where English people live, but we do not want to live in West Africa, no more."

Ambassador Lubbers says he will urge Liberian President Charles Taylor to find a political solution to end the Liberian conflict so the refugees can also return home.

The two men will meet in Monrovia Wednesday as the U.N. ambassador continues a week-long visit to West Africa, where there are an estimated 400,000 refugees.