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No Safe Place for Liberian Refugees, says UN - 2003-01-14

The United Nations refugee agency says starting Wednesday it will begin repatriating 1,000 Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast who are caught in a particularly dangerous situation.

U.N. refugee agency officials call the repatriation of the Liberian refugees a last resort. They acknowledge conditions in Liberia are not ideal for a safe repatriation. But they say they have no choice.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Delphine Marie, says it cannot find a safe site for the Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast and none of the neighboring countries are willing to grant them temporary asylum.

Ms. Marie says the refugees, who are now being sheltered in the UNHCR/CARITAS compound in Tabou, are in great danger from the local community, which is becoming increasingly hostile and aggressive toward them.

"They are prevented from moving out," she said. "The local population will not let them move and the youth brigades, as well, who are [manning] roadblocks will not let them through either, even if they want to go back to Liberia.

"They are saying that the Liberians are automatically affiliated with the rebels and if the Ivorians should die of the war, the Liberians should die with them." she continued, "As I say, it is not a first choice to repatriate these people, but it is really the lesser of two evils."

Because of the urgency of the situation, the U.N. refugee agency says it will use local minibuses to transport the Liberian refugees to the border rather than wait several days for trucks to arrive from the capital, Abidjan.

Ms. Marie says the minibuses, which can carry 15 to 20 refugees at a time, will make several round trips a day. From the border, she says the agency will use long row boats to ferry the refugees across the Cavaly River into Liberia. She says they then will be registered and accommodated in a transit center run by the refugee agency in Liberia.

"Depending on whether they can or want to go home or not, we will put them on those convoys that we have in Liberia to take people to Bong and Nimba counties which are relatively at peace," Ms. Marie said. "For Liberians who come from Lofa county which is at war or from Monrovia to where we have stopped the convoys, they would have to be accommodated in a camp for internally displaced persons most probably and assisted there."

Before the fighting started in Ivory Coast in September, the country hosted about 70,000 Liberian refugees. The U.N. refugee agency officials estimate 38,000 have since returned home and another 21,000 Ivorians have sought refuge in Liberia.