Nearly 310,000 Liberians were refugees at the end of 1998, including more than 160,000 in Guinea, 125,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, 13,000 in Ghana, about 10,000 in Sierra Leone, and 2,000 in Nigeria.
More than 240,000 Liberians repatriated during the year.
By year's end, more than 75,000 Liberians were still living in shelters for the internally displaced, according to some estimates. Many more uprooted Liberians may have continued to live on their own. Large numbers of internally displaced persons left shelters in Monrovia during the year and presumably returned to their home areas.
Approximately 120,000 refugees from Sierra Leone remained in Liberia at year's end.
Civil war afflicted Liberia during 1989-96. The conflict erupted in late 1989 when the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, attacked government forces. Fighting quickly degenerated into ethnic massacres and civil war. Most armed factions appeared to lack a political ideology and simply pursued sustained warfare, exploitation of natural resources, and looting.
At the height of the war, about half of Liberia's estimated population of 3 million became uprooted inside or outside the country. The conflict claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 Liberians.
Regional countries operating under the auspices of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) deployed peacekeeping troops, known as the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in an effort to contain the fighting. ECOMOG quickly became embroiled in the war, however.
After more than a dozen failed peace agreements, a 1996 peace accord led to the election of Charles Taylor as president in July 1997. Security conditions improved and refugees began to return home.
The seven-year war left much of the country without clinics, hospitals, and schools. Some counties, such as Grand Gedeh in the southeast and portions of Lofa in the north, were particularly hard-hit during the war.
1998 Political Violence
The security situation remained precarious during the year, despite relative improvements in some areas. Tensions driven by ethnic and political rivalries continued to cause concern, and sporadic outbreaks of violence threatened Liberia's hard-won peace.
The government continued to discriminate against some ethnic groups and individuals that had opposed Taylor during the civil war. Ethnic Krahn, affiliated with former faction leader Roosevelt Johnson, were a particular target. Animosities lingering after the war complicated relations between some ethnic groups, particularly in areas absorbing large numbers of repatriating refugees.
Tensions between Taylor loyalists and supporters of former warlord Roosevelt Johnson erupted into violence on September 18. Government security forces, joined by combatants from Taylor's former rebel faction, conducted an armed assault against Johnson's headquarters in the capital, Monrovia. A 17-hour gun-battle ensued during which Johnson sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy. At least 50 civilians were killed. Unconfirmed reports claimed casualties among ethnic Krahn were as high as 300. Johnson subsequently fled the country. The government charged at least 22 of his supporters with treason.
In the weeks that followed, unsubstantiated reports of reprisals contributed to a climate of insecurity that threatened to erode Liberia's tenuous peace. Some refugees expressed reservations about repatriation until security could be guaranteed. Few ethnic Krahn felt that they could return home after the violence in September.
New Liberian Refugees
After the outbreak of violence in the capital, many ethnic Krahn fled Liberia to neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. Approximately 14,000 new Liberian refugees arrived in Côte d'Ivoire by year's end, according to UNHCR.
USCR and more than a dozen other nongovernmental organizations urged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to launch an investigation of "the actions of government security forces and other groups involved in the [September] violence and lawlessness, and the impact of these actions on human rights, democracy, and the peace process." A UN investigation can "help Liberians and their elected government separate rumor from fact and return to the kind of constructive dialogue so critical to the nation's recovery," the agencies contended. Some major donors made further aid to the Liberian government conditional on the results of the inquiry. By year's end, however, the UN had not undertaken an investigation.
At year's end, more than 75,000 Liberians remained in shelters for the internally displaced, according to the Liberian Refugee, Repatriation, and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), a government agency. The size of the internally displaced population in Liberia has long been uncertain because large numbers of Liberians live outside formal shelters. At the beginning of the year, there were more than 220,000 internally displaced people, in 88 government-approved shelters in six counties.
The majority of displaced persons lived in Monrovia, where they often inhabited filthy, overcrowded, government-owned buildings, which officials sought to empty so their offices could reopen. Some displaced families were reluctant to return home because they depended on commercial activities in the capital.
The government announced in February that displacement sites would receive no more aid after March. In an effort to encourage people to return home, the government declared that humanitarian agencies would distribute aid in their home areas. The move was part of an over-all community-based approach to humanitarian assistance which was supported by donor agencies, the UN, and the Liberian Red Cross.
At the end of December, President Taylor issued an executive order calling for the demolition of all displaced centers in Monrovia because they discouraged "the return of Liberians to their counties of origin," he said. Some observers feared that this policy would be dangerous if it was implemented by undisciplined government security forces.
Approximately a quarter-million Liberian refugees returned to their home areas. This estimate was highly speculative, however, since precise population figures for Liberian refugees have long been uncertain because of the large numbers of refugees who lived on their own, regular movements of people back and forth across the border, and poor registration procedures. For example, a UNHCR registration exercise in 1997, undertaken in anticipation of a large-scale repatriation effort, found that the Liberian refugee population was 30 percent smaller than previously believed.
At least 90,000 Liberian refugees repatriated with UNHCR assistance during 1998. Some climbed aboard UNHCR buses. Others returned on foot to border-area communities. All received assistance in the form of a standard aid package that included mats, blankets, plastic sheeting, water cans, kitchen utensils, farming tools and seeds.
Another 150,000 Liberian refugees are believed to have spontaneously returned home on their own. Many heads of households returned to Liberia to start rebuilding their homes before bringing back family members from refugee camps. Other refugees said they preferred to cross the border to cultivate their fields in Liberia while continuing to live in refugee camps, according to aid workers.
The reintegration of displaced persons and returning refugees continued despite difficult conditions. In some parts of the country, Liberians returned to their communities to find their homes occupied by other displaced persons and former combatants. In other areas, inter-ethnic hostilities prevented some Liberians from returning home.
Aid agencies often concentrated their efforts in one or two counties such as Bong or Nimba. The southeastern corner of the country received little assistance by comparison.
UNHCR had only 120 of the 170 trucks it estimated were required for the massive repatriation and reintegration operation. Exceptionally heavy rains and deteriorating road conditions slowed the rate of return and hampered humanitarian assistance to many areas. Flooding in northwestern Liberia temporarily uprooted as many as 5,000 people.
Agricultural production remained low, and the economy failed to improve during the year.
Government security forces often extorted money or goods from returnees, and occasionally seized food shipments by forcibly stopping WFP trucks and confiscating their cargo intended for internally displaced people and returnees. WFP provided food aid to an average of 420,000 persons per month.
At the beginning of 1998, 75 percent of pre-war health facilities were not functioning and between half and two-thirds of schools were not open, according to OCHA. By year's end, most children were back in school. However, most families lacked the money to buy textbooks. School conditions remained poor, particularly in the southeast, where students often lacked desks.
Liberia faced a shortage of trained medical personnel, according to the World Health Organization. A 1998 UN report stated that Liberia had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Africa – 200 out of every 1,000 children died within the first year. UNICEF sponsored a five-day child vaccination campaign. National health officials reported an outbreak of cholera in Nimba and Margibi counties mid-year.
Reintegration of former combatants remained a problem. While some estimates that as many as threequarters of child combatants during the war suffered from substance abuse, virtually no funds existed for drug rehabilitation programs. Although thousands of former combatants completed vocational training programs, the lack of job opportunities meant that most remained unemployed.
Rehabilitation and Reintegration
Humanitarian agencies agreed that Liberia was so devastated after seven years of civil war that virtually all Liberians – returning refugees, internally displaced persons, as well as those who never fled their homes – required comprehensive community-based assistance.
An international donor conference in April estimated that Liberia required about $430 million in rehabilitation and reintegration aid. The Liberian government reportedly said it could contribute one percent of that amount. Donors pledged some $200 million for the first phase, stipulating that the Liberian government needed to increase government accountability, security, and respect for human rights in order for international aid to continue.
The September violence in Monrovia prevented a multi-donor assessment mission scheduled later in the year. Following the United States' lead, most donors slowed assistance to Liberia pending a full investigation into the September violence. By the end of the year, donors provided less than 20 percent of the funds they had pledged in April. Budgetary constraints consequently hampered many rehabilitation and reintegration programs.
Micro-projects to rebuild homes and restart activities at the local level were an essential component of repatriation and reintegration. The UN, major international donors such as USAID, and international relief agencies coordinated efforts to provide basic construction equipment at the local level, such as tools, nails, and plastic sheeting. Pilot projects were launched in six areas. Liberia's infrastructure remained devastated from seven years of war. Income-earning potential and crop production remained low. UNDP trained local NGOs in managing small business loans and supported vocational training for displaced Liberians in Monrovia, yet the UN often lacked sufficient funds to continue such projects past the pilot-phase. UNHCR was unable to implement its plan for vocational training programs for women in the main returnee areas in Liberia because of financial constraints.
"As long as educational facilities remain inadequate, refugee students will not be willing to repatriate," UNHCR reported. UNHCR and UNICEF launched a "Liberian Child Initiative" in August, focusing on education, income-generation, family reunification, the protection and promotion of child rights, and environmental education.
The deteriorated conditions in returnee areas meant that Liberians needed far more than aid programs were able to provide in 1998: infrastructure such as roads and bridges, water and sanitation systems, and health and education facilities.
Refugees from Sierra Leone
At year's end, about 120,000 Sierra Leonean refugees lived in seven refugee camps in three counties of western Liberia: Lofa, Cape Mount, and Montserrado. UNHCR provided humanitarian assistance only in the designated refugee sites.
After fighting broke out in neighboring Sierra Leone in February, between 700 to 1,000 Sierra Leoneans per day crossed the border to Liberia. During late March, the influx reached a peak of 5,000 per day. By mid-year, the tide had abated, but more than 50,000 refugees had amassed in Liberia's Vahun region, an area poor road conditions rendered inaccessible during the rainy season. UNHCR encouraged new arrivals to relocate to a newly established camp in Kolahun, about 70 km (42 miles) away.
By year's end, more than 15,000 Sierra Leoneans refused to relocate from villages along the border to refugee camps, according to UNHCR. Consequently, they did not receive ongoing international assistance and continued to rely on the local population for shelter. Aid workers speculated that many were family members of Sierra Leonean insurgents who were active on the other side of the Sierra Leone-Liberia border.
Protection issues were an ongoing concern. There were persistent allegations that Sierra Leonean rebel groups forcibly recruited young men from the refugee camps in western Liberia.
In June, Human Rights Watch charged that "former combatants, some of whom may have been responsible for gross atrocities against the civilian population in Sierra Leone, including killings, amputations, rape, sexual violence, and abductions, remain mixed with the general refugee population" in two camps in Lofa county. Some international aid agencies were reportedly reluctant to provide humanitarian assistance to this population out of concern that it would be diverted to support armed combatants in neighboring Sierra Leone.
UNHCR dispatched a protection officer to monitor the identities of new arrivals, and requested the Liberian government to reactivate the National Eligibility Commission in order to screen the refugee population to identify Sierra Leonean combatants mixing with refugees.
More than 5,000 Sierra Leonean refugees departed Liberia and spontaneously returned to Sierra Leone in August and September, according to some estimates. They walked across the border on their own.