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Caught in the Crossfire: The Refugee Crisis in West Africa in 2000-2001
In early 2001, MSF called attention to the deteriorating situation of hundreds of thousands of mostly Sierra Leonean refugees stuck in a volatile area of Guinea near Gueckedou and "Parrot's Beak." Refugees were living in a wedge of Guinea jutting into Sierra Leone (see map), near the Liberian border—a spot vulnerable to attacks by armed groups from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Sometimes the refugees were fleeing hostilities or caught in the crossfire; other times they were the victims of deliberate attacks by those hoping to steal their relief items, including food.
The insecurity of the area hampered humanitarian workers and made relief only intermittently possible. Some camps lacked basic humanitarian aid, including medical care and food. Massive delivery of food aid attracted attacks from armed groups and was thus impossible. The refugees—many of whom had been in the area for years—were forced into a daily choice between staying and risking attack while waiting for food aid to arrive, or traveling on foot through insecure territory.
The situation in Parrot's Beak in winter and spring 2001 was a reflection of a regional refugee crisis going back more than a decade. An ongoing conflict in Sierra Leone has pushed an estimated 330,000 refugees into Guinea over the last ten years and displaced many others inside Sierra Leone itself (all refugee estimations are from UNHCR). Liberia's civil war, from 1990-1997, forced 235,000 Liberians to flee to Guinea, where today over 100,000 remain. Still other Liberians have been displaced within their own country, where fighting continues in Lofa province in the northwest.
MSF, which has been providing medical aid to Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea since 1990, had been pushing to get Parrot's Beak refugees relocated away from the border since 1998, a move broadly accepted by the international community. Yet a lack of financial and human resources at the UNHCR and refusal of the Guinean authorities to grant permission meant that this move was put off.
Then, in September 2000, fighting at Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia flared up, exacerbating the situation of the refugees and causing the deaths of several hundred people. A UNHCR worker was killed, resulting in the agency's complete withdrawal from the area between September and January 2001. MSF, for its part, called again for the quick, voluntary relocation of refugees to safer areas.
When no international plan materialized, some of the refugees started moving on their own, largely without the benefit of protection or help. Of the estimated 150,000 refugees in Parrot's Beak in January 2001, by April over half had fled the area to escape the fighting, many returning to Sierra Leone. However, conditions in Sierra Leone—where entire regions are still unstable—were hardly welcoming for the returning refugees.
Thousands of other Parrot's Beak refugees found their way to slightly safer areas of Guinea, including the Nyaedou camp where MSF was working, just north of Parrot's Beak. Yet even this camp was threatened by armed groups and could not be considered safe.
In spring 2001, many of those wishing to leave Parrot's Beak had begun walking out to safer areas. In early May, trucks were finally organized to bring refugees out of Parrot's Beak to transit camps, where MSF and other organizations provided medical care and water and sanitation services. The refugees then moved to relocation camps near the towns of Albaderia and Dabola. MSF provided medical and water and sanitation assistance in some of the camps. Refugees can stay in these camps, but many try to reach the Guinean capital, Conakry, and from there go by boat back to Sierra Leone.
Some refugees fled into the bush and left no trace, rather than be relocated. MSF remained strong in its conviction that any relocation must be voluntary.
While the refugee crisis peaked in early 2001, situation of refugees remains precarious. Increasing violence and around areas with large numbers has provoked a backlash from Guinean government. Many have been caught between attacks by armed factions mounting aggression on part civil population. As October MSF work Parrot's Beak continued Boreah, Dabola, Mambiya camps.
The situation remains unstable in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, where large numbers of people have been displaced in the northwest since summer 2001. MSF continues to work in all three countries, providing medical aid, nutrition programs, and water and sanitation services to refugees and residents alike.