The UN Children's Fund warns thousands of Ivorian refugees, who have fled to Liberia, are threatened by disease outbreaks. UNICEF says cramped living conditions are increasing health and protection risks for children and women.
The United Nations reports more than 36,300 Ivorian refugees have fled to Liberia, 85 percent are children and women. The UN Children’s Fund says communities along the border with the Ivory Coast are sheltering most asylum seekers.
UNICEF says local inhabitants are very welcoming to the refugees. But, it notes Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 80 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day.
And this, says UNICEF spokeswoman, Marixie Mercado, limits the ability of these poor communities to care for themselves and the refugees. She says their coping mechanisms are being stretched to the limit.
“In some communities, especially those closest to the border, refugees far outnumber local inhabitants, and residents say they cannot absorb more refugees. Severe food shortages and inadequate shelter aggravate protection risks for children and women, and the threat of disease outbreak remains one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns,” Mercado said. “For the majority of refugees and local inhabitants, the nearest health facility is a good four-hour walk away through mud paths and dense forest.”
UNICEF spokeswoman Mercado, who recently returned from Liberia, says the overcrowded conditions of the communities are increasing the health and protection risks.
She says in some villages as many as 30 people may be living in one small dwelling. In many cases, she notes, women and children are sleeping out in the bush.
“There have been a few cases of sexual and gender-based violence reported-very, very few. Many of the victims are unwilling to come forward. But, there have been very few cases thus far. But, these conditions of shelter definitely aggravate risks for women and children…The shortages of food means that-for example, children are criss-crossing the border. There are reports of children working as porters, carrying loads,” she said.
Mercado says the shortage of food among the residents and refugees aggravates risks for everybody. She notes local inhabitants say they have used up their food stocks until May.
UNICEF is providing the refugees with safe water and sanitation. It is conducting special therapeutic feeding for severely malnourished children and recently supported a Ministry of Health-led campaign to immunize 150,000 children-both refugees and Liberians--against measles.
Mercado says this was in response to a measles outbreak that has killed five Liberian children in Nimba County, where 97 percent of the refugees are hosted.