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Guinea  Becomes Refuge for Thousands of Children

The United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, says Guinea has become a magnet and place of refuge for thousands of largely unaccompanied children fleeing West Africa's civil wars. UNICEF says these refugee children have joined thousands of Guinean children separated from their own families, all fending for themselves in urban centers.

Over the past decade, more than one million refugees from neighboring Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone have sought shelter in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

While most have gone back home, UNICEF says more than 100,000 people still live in refugee camps. A recent survey estimates that another 50,000, mainly young people, are living on the streets of the country's major cities.

UNICEF spokesman Damien Personnaz says the condition of these children provides a terrible snapshot of all of West Africa's wars over the last 10 years.

"It shows that the situation is not under control," he said. "It shows that there is a kind of total political vacuum in child protection in these three countries. The fact that many children can move from one country to another one without even being registered or without even being able to monitor where they are going shows the weakness of the whole system."

Mr. Personnaz says UNICEF is only now beginning to realize the extent and urgency of the problem. Until fairly recently, he says, most of the agency's concern has been focused on children living in the war-torn countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

He notes that little attention was given to the plight of thousands of unaccompanied children in Guinea because it was a relatively stable country.

Mr. Personnaz says Guinean children are gradually returning from Liberia, where they had been recruited to fight in that country's civil war. This, he says, is adding to the already large problem of street children.

He says UNICEF has registered 2,000 of these children, each one of whom tells a different story.

"Some of them are coming from Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast]," said Damien Personnaz. "Some of them are coming from Liberia, where they have been child soldiers. Some of them have been sex slaves. Some of them have been in Sierra Leone, where they worked in diamond and gold mines. Some of them have been forced into forced labor. Some of them are coming back. Some have been in jail. All of them have different stories."

Mr. Personnaz says UNICEF also is trying to register and demobilize an estimated 2,000 Guinean child soldiers. About one fifth are thought to be girls. He says about 350 currently are receiving vocational training and help in rejoining their families.