Ambassadors from all 15 members of the UN Security Council have paid an unprecedented visit to a refugee camp in Liberia as part of a mission to assess the situation in the region about one year after the end of a political crisis in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
The 15 envoys were among a 32-member UN delegation from New York to tour the PTP Refugee Camp in Grand Gedeh county, south-east Liberia on Tuesday. The facility was opened last September on the site of the former Prime Timber Production (PTP) company. The largest of the camps for Ivorians remaining in Liberia, it hosts more than 7,600 refugees.
The Security Council officials are on a swing through three West African nations that are emerging from war and conflict in recent years. They flew to Liberia from Guiglo in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
“We spoke with Ivorian citizens who shared their experiences with us as they go through a transition,” the United States’ Ambassador Susan Rice told refugees at the PTP camp. “We would like to understand better from you what conditions have to be present so you would feel comfortable to return home,” she said, while noting that people in Côte d’Ivoire had told them that while security concerns lingered, the situation was better than a year ago.
Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki of Morocco, delegation co-leader with Rice, expressed the hope that security would continue to improve in Côte d’Ivoire so that all Ivorian refugees can return home.
Some 220,000 Ivorians fled to Liberia after fighting broke out between the supporters of the rival candidates in the November 2010 presidential election. The violence ended in April last year, when forces loyal to election winner Alassane Ouattara captured Abidjan. But some 67,000 remain in Liberia as UNHCR continues to help facilitate return to safe areas.
Refugee leaders told the Security Council delegation members that their areas of return remained insecure, claiming that armed gangs roamed the area and frequently took the law into their own hands. Some claimed their cocoa plantations were being illegally occupied and this made it difficult to return, but all acknowledged the need for reconciliation.
Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR’s representative in Liberia, told the Security Council members about the important work the refugee agency does in the seven refugee camps for Ivorians in Liberia. He noted that UNHCR had helped thousands return home over the past year, while many others have gone back spontaneously.
Meanwhile, the Security Council members noted with satisfaction that many Liberians have returned home in the past few months ahead of the invocation of the so-called cessation clause at the end of June. The clause, which effectively ends refugee status for Liberians, is recognition that the conditions that forced people to flee Liberia no longer exist after nearly nine years of peace. The delegates are currently back in Côte d’Ivoire and will fly to Sierra Leone today for the final leg of their tour.
By Sulaiman Momodu in PTP Refugee Camp, Liberia