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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Guinea-Bissau

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Guinea-Bissau , 1 January 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8cb2c.html [accessed 23 May 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Some 10,000 citizens of Guinea-Bissau were refugees at the end of 1998, including nearly 5,000 in Senegal, an estimated 4,000 in Guinea-Conakry, and about 1,000 in Gambia. About 200,000 residents of Guinea-Bissau were internally displaced at year's end.

Guinea-Bissau hosted about 5,000 refugees from Senegal, although some sources estimated there were three times that many.

Violence in Guinea-Bissau

The small West African country of Guinea-Bissau erupted in uncharacteristic violence during the second half of 1998, forcing an estimated one-third of the nation's 1 million people to flee their homes.

The country's military mutinied in June when President Joao Bernardo Vieira fired his top military commander, Ansumana Mane. The insurgents seized much of the coastal capital, Bissau, as well as large parts of the country's interior. Troops from neighboring Senegal and Guinea-Conakry promptly intervened on the side of the president.

The most intense fighting centered on Bissau. Heavy shelling badly damaged buildings and homes in the capital. An estimated 500 people died in the first weeks of violence.

A series of cease-fire agreements between insurgents and pro government forces repeatedly collapsed throughout the last half of the year. A political accord between the two sides in November called for power-sharing and an eventual deployment of peacekeeping troops.

As the year ended, a fragile cease-fire was in effect and tensions remained high.

Population Uprooted

The sustained violence in the capital pushed most of the city's 300,000 residents from their homes. Most fled to towns and villages in the country's interior, where they received food and lodging from friends and relatives.

The generosity of local residents toward the displaced population helped prevent a larger humanitarian crisis. Rural towns swelled to nearly double normal size as many families provided accommodations to 40 or more displaced people under one roof.

"Those people of Guinea-Bissau not affected by the fighting made proof of commendable solidarity with their [uprooted] countrymen," OCHA reported. Clean water and adequate food, however, were often in short supply.

Several thousand people fled the capital by boat to Senegal and Guinea-Conakry. Up to 20,000 reportedly fled on boats to islands about 30 miles off the coast of Bissau. Some 200 displaced people drowned when their overcrowded boat sank in June while headed toward an offshore island.

Violence and other military activity in northern Guinea-Bissau, near the border with Senegal, prevented thousands of would-be refugees from entering Senegal on foot. Senegalese authorities closed their border for security reasons. The closure hampered delivery of food relief to displaced populations within Guinea-Bissau.

UN relief agencies appealed to international donors in August for $28 million to assist displaced persons and refugees fleeing Guinea-Bissau. WFP reported a need for 30,000 tons of relief food, but the agency managed to deliver less than 8,000 tons to beneficiaries during the second half of the year. Local crop harvests late in the year helped alleviate some food shortages.

A temporary outbreak of new violence in October forced additional population displacement and, according to a UN official, "crushes all hope of going back" home in the near future for most uprooted families. About half of the newly displaced people "are living in worse conditions than they were during" the first upheaval in June, OCHA reported in December.

At the end of 1998, with fragile stability restored, an estimated 70,000 displaced people returned to their homes in the capital, but most displaced families remained uprooted as the year ended.

Refugees from Senegal

The number and identity of Senegalese refugees in Guinea-Bissau remained a matter of dispute during 1998. The refugees fled to Guinea-Bissau during the 1990s because of ongoing violence in southern Senegal linked to an armed insurgency.

Some officials estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 Senegalese refugees lived in Guinea-Bissau, primarily in small rural settlements along the border between the two countries. Fewer than 1,000 refugees resided at a special UNHCR-assisted camp, Jolmete, located about 40 km (25 miles) from the border.

Senegal's military authorities charged that many asylum seekers in Guinea-Bissau were actually Senegalese rebels who used refugee sites in Guinea-Bissau for food, protection, and recruitment of new combatants.

Other observers have charged that estimates of 15,000 or more Senegalese refugees were inflated by use of outdated food beneficiary lists, and that many alleged Senegalese refugees were actually citizens of Guinea-Bissau who returned to their home country to escape Senegal's violence.

Authorities in Guinea-Bissau reported in early 1998 that they would move several thousand Senegalese refugees to southern Guinea-Bissau – far from the Senegal border – in order to defuse border tensions. A national official stated that "those who really regard themselves as refugees will be resettled."

The outbreak of violence in Guinea-Bissau in the second half of 1998 rapidly spread to the main refugee area near the border with Senegal. UNHCR and other aid agencies lost contact with most Senegalese refugees due to the violence.

OCHA recommended in December that virtually all Senegalese refugees living along Guinea-Bissau's border with Senegal should be moved for security reasons. "The need to relocated this group has grown ever more urgent," OCHA stated.

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