April 11, 2001

MSF Demands Protection and Assistance for Returnees; Reiterates Call for Immediate Evacuation to Safe Areas Inside Guinea

Paris/New York, April 12, 2001 — Thousands of Sierra Leoneans who had taken refuge in Southern Guinea and found themselves trapped in the "Parrot's Beak" region, close to Gueckedou, are now trying to flee the area in an effort to escape fighting. Since January, nearly half of the 140,000 people who had fled Parrot's Beak have either moved on to seek refuge in Guinea's interior regions or returned to Sierra Leone. Some have been returning on foot, crossing rebel-held areas. Fifty refugees arrive each day in the town of Kenema, in the south of Sierra Leone, where a team from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is present. Over the past few weeks, a total of 5,000 people have been registered there.

Most of these Sierra Leoneans have left Guinea because they fear for their safety. The "Parrot's Beak" region (a Guinean territory known in French as "La Langue de Gueckedou," located on the Guinea border, between Liberia and Sierra Leone), where they found refuge, has been the scene of fierce fighting for several months. Fifty thousand refugees in the region have suffered harassment at the hands of the various armed factions and are at risk of being caught in the crossfire.

Refugees who have arrived at Kenema and have been interviewed by MSF have traveled for an average of eight days. Many of these refugees have left family members behind. Some report that they were harassed on the way. An MSF exploratory team which went to Kaïlahun, a region held by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), has seen around 300 refugees arriving from Guinea.

In view of the situation in Sierra Leone, where entire regions remain unstable, it is not yet safe for the refugees who have left the country to return. These refugees run the risk of being threatened once more by the violence they fled just a few years ago. However, MSF requests that those who do return of their own accord, because they have no alternative, be accorded the protection and assistance to which they are legally entitled.

On several occasions, including in a letter addressed to the UN Security Council on March 7, 2001, MSF has asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the local authorities to ensure protection of the refugees trapped in southern Guinea, by transferring them to more secure regions in the north of the country, where camps have already been set up by MSF and other agencies. MSF stands ready to help evacuate these threatened people. and other agencies. MSF stands ready to help evacuate these threatened people.)