Refugee and Local Populations Trapped in Eastern Liberia

UNHCR and Liberian Government Urged to Open Camps in Safe Areas

Map of Liberia

Refugees inside a camp tent in Liberia. Photo ©Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

Monrovia/New York, March 13, 2003 - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is extremely concerned about the fate of thousands of people in Grand Gedeh district, eastern Liberia, who have been trapped in the area due to heightened insecurity for more than one week. Recent fighting has forced MSF and other aid organizations to evacuate the area and caused thousands of people to flee.

MSF had been working in Grand Gedeh district, providing assistance to refugees and returnees fleeing the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ivory Coast. The refugee population in the district is estimated to be some 45,000 people - including Liberian returnees, Ivoirian refugees, and third-country nationals. Thousands of them are stranded in refugee transit camps, only a few kilometers from the fighting in Ivory Coast and with constant militia movements throughout the region. Today, part of this area is cut off from all assistance.

"In the transit camp of Toe Town MSF teams provided medical care and clean water to some 1,300 people," explains Dr. Hani Khalifa, medical coordinator for MSF in Liberia. "During the attack on Toe Town early March, refugees fled the camp and the host communities around Toe Town in all directions. Since then we have not been able to get any news about what has happened to them. Unofficial reports indicate that most of them have fled into the bush and that many families have been separated."

A mother sits in a refugee camp in Liberia with her baby, who is recovering from malnutrition. Photo ©Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

Due to insecurity in the area, it is also impossible to provide assistance to the local population who are equally trapped in this extremely dangerous region. This insecurity was tragically demonstrated by the killing of three aid workers during the attack on Toe Town last week. MSF teams have not yet been able to return to assess the situation and provide assistance.

After a security assessment, MSF has decided to continue its activities in the Zwedru transit camp, 200 kilometers south of Toe Town, where its teams provide health care, nutritional support, and water and sanitation to 5,000 refugees, mostly from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Benin. "Zwedru is supposed to be only a transit camp, but hundreds of people have been there since December," says Pierre Mendiharat, head of mission for MSF in Liberia.

MSF is urgently calling on the Liberian authorities and UNHCR to open a camp further inland, in a safe area where adequate assistance, security, and protection would be possible. The refugees and third-country nationals in Toe Town and Zwedru should be moved there as soon as possible. Furthermore, MSF is calling on the UNHCR and the relevant authorities to facilitate the repatriation of third-country nationals to their country of origin.

Families stand in line at a weekly medical clinic to receive treatment from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors. Photo ©Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos