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Peacekeepers: Liberia Still Unsafe - 2003-12-30


United Nations peacekeepers say Liberia is still not safe enough for the return of refugees who fled the civil war. Tens of thousands of Liberian refugees have been trapped in neighboring Ivory Coast since a civil war broke out there as well.

U.N. officials say that until peacekeepers deploy throughout Liberia, a large-scale return of refugees is not advisable. They say even humanitarian workers are afraid to go to areas where the refugees fled from because there is no security there and everything has been looted.

An international peacekeeping force known as UNMIL has slowly deployed away from the capital, Monrovia, since the end of fighting in August, but tens of thousands of former fighters remain armed.

The senior operations officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Liberia, Theophilus Vodonou, says she hopes the situation can improve quickly. "The majority of the refugees came from the areas where the UNMIL have not yet deployed," says Ms. Vodonou. "Hopefully in two weeks' time or so when the United Nations peacekeepers deploy to some of the areas then we will be able, the humanitarian workers and ourselves, the U.N., will be able to go to those places and start rehabilitating some of the public infrastructure in order to permit them to relocate to those areas.

An estimated 400,000 Liberians have fled into neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast since 1989 when fighting broke out in Liberia. That is when former rebel turned president and now exiled Charles Taylor launched his insurgency.

Many refugees have been languishing in refugee camps since then, but have also been accused of being recruited as mercenaries in their host countries. This has made them prone to persecution, especially in Ivory Coast, where a civil war broke out last year. Both sides here, Ivorian rebels and government forces, accuse each other of hiring refugees to become fighters in the conflict.

Outside United Nations offices in the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan, dozens of refugees protest daily asking U.N. officials to get them out of Ivory Coast immediately.

One of them, Moses Ban, says he is desperate for a safe haven. "Because we have had a lot of problems here. We have been targeted and the people continue to say that Liberians are on both sides of the crisis, the government and the rebel side so the citizens are against us. As we go out, they will tell you, you are an enemy to our progress, and this is why we continue to remain in transit centers," he says. "So we are asking the international community to please come and take us away where it will be safe for us, that's where we will want to go."

Mr. Ban has been rejected by several programs giving out special immigrant visas for thousands of Liberian refugees to go to Europe or the United States. Unless he is accepted, Mr. Ban will have to wait until the situation improves in Liberia. If it does, he will be able to finally return home and stop being a refugee.

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