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January 06, 2011

Ivorians Continue to Flee to Liberia

The United Nations refugee agency reports hundreds of refugees in the Ivory Coast continue to flee every day into neighboring Liberia in fear of civil war breaking out. The UNHCR and other U.N. aid agencies say they are boosting their humanitarian operations in preparation for a possible worsening of the situation in the country.

The U.N. refugee agency reports Ivorians are fleeing to Liberia at the rate of about 500 people a day, bringing the current refugee number to 23,000. UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming says most of the refugees are women and children.

“They tell us that they are fleeing for pre-emptive reasons even though the civil war was over eight years ago," said Fleming  "It still is raw and fresh in their minds what kind of devastation was caused to them. They are very concerned that something like that could happen again. They are awaiting what is happening back home.”  

So far, Ivorians only have been fleeing to Liberia. But, Fleming says this could change should the situation worsen. She says the UNHCR has contingency plans in all countries bordering the Ivory Coast.  

“It depends very much on the situation within the country and where there is fighting, where there are tensions and it is very difficult for us to predict.  All we can do is maintain our readiness,” she said.  

The stalemate between Ivory Coast’s self-proclaimed President, Laurent Gbagbo and the internationally presumed winner, Alassane Ouattara, remains unresolved. Many observers fear the standoff could erupt into renewed civil war.

As it is, the UNHCR continues to assist some 13,000 Ivorian refugees who fled the 2002 civil war and remain in exile in Liberia, Guinea and Mali.  

Fleming says the new arrivals in Liberia are still being accommodated in villages. But, she notes this is untenable because the local people are very poor and cannot continue to support the refugees. She says the UNHCR hopes to relieve this burden by establishing a refugee camp.

“We are waiting the final approval of that camp. But, we have already planned the site and have established all the infrastructural items that we need to rapidly get that camp up and running and we hope that is going to happen very soon," Fleming said. "We are also anxiously awaiting a major food delivery, I think, in cooperation with WFP [World Food Program]. People are getting hungry and this is becoming an issue.”  

Fleming says the roads are very difficult. But, she expects the food will be delivered on Tuesday.  

The World Food Program reports it has airlifted 5 metric tons of high-energy biscuits into Liberia for distribution in the border area. It says this will be enough to feed 7,000 refugees over three days.

In addition, WFP says it and the UNHCR are setting up an emergency operation to assist 18,000 internally displaced people in Ivory Coast and another 15,000 refugees in Liberia for a period of 45 days.