U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire hosted approximately 135,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 1999, including about 130,000 from Liberia, some 2,000 from Sierra Leone, and 3,000 from other countries.

An estimated 30,000 or more Liberian refugees repatriated from Côte d'Ivoire during the year.

Local ethnic violence in Côte d'Ivoire in late 1999 uprooted an estimated 10,000 immigrants from Burkina Faso who lived in Côte d'Ivoire. Most of the uprooted immigrants fled Côte d'Ivoire and returned to Burkina Faso by year's end.

Refugees from Liberia

Liberian refugees arrived in Côte d'Ivoire in the early 1990s fleeing civil war in their own country. Their numbers in Côte d'Ivoire peaked at about 300,000 in the mid-1990s. Despite 15,000 new arrivals in late 1998, gradual repatriation has occurred since Liberia's war ended in 1996.

An estimated 130,000 Liberian refugees remained in Côte d'Ivoire at the end of 1999. The size of the Liberian refugee population has long been uncertain because of poor registration procedures, large numbers of refugees who live on their own, and frequent movements of people back and forth across the border. Budget constraints during 1999 forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to delay plans for a new census of the Liberian refugee population.

About 100,000 Liberian refugees continued living in camps and settlements at three general locations along the 300-mile (about 500 km) Côte d'Ivoire-Liberia border. An estimated 30,000 other Liberian refugees and asylum seekers reportedly lived unassisted in the country's major urban areas. UNHCR announced that it would end assistance programs at the end of 1999 for all Liberian refugees except those who arrived in late 1998.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) conducted a site visit to Côte d'Ivoire in October to assess the needs of Liberian refugees and their attitudes about repatriation. USCR published its findings and recommendations in November.

USCR found that more than 40,000 refugees who had registered to repatriate had not yet done so by November. Some refugees remained in Côte d'Ivoire for economic reasons or to pursue their education. Thousands of ethnic Krahn refugees with ties to Liberia's former Krahn-dominated government insisted that Liberia's post-war animosities prevented their safe return home.

"Some Liberian refugees have real and legitimate fear of persecution if they repatriate. This group includes many ethnic Krahn," USCR reported. "Although thousands of Krahns have successfully repatriated, many (Krahn) refugees remain cautious."

USCR recommended that "UNHCR should continue to encourage voluntary repatriation by most Liberian refugees," particularly by non-Krahn. "Despite difficult conditions in Liberia, safe repatriation is feasible for many current refugees," USCR concluded. "UNHCR should continue to promote local integration [in Côte d'Ivoire] of Liberian refugees who are unable or unwilling to repatriate."

By year's end, nearly 25,000 refugees repatriated with UNHCR's assistance. Thousands of others returned home spontaneously without seeking repatriation help from UNHCR.

UNHCR's plan to accelerate voluntary repatriation and help remaining refugee families integrate into local Ivoirien communities received a setback in the second half of 1999 when government authorities refused to allow Liberian students to integrate into local schools. Government officials stated that Ivoirien schools were financially unprepared to absorb more than 10,000 Liberian students.

USCR recommended that "a reduced number of refugee schools should re-open in Côte d'Ivoire" because of the government's stance against enrolling refugee students into local schools. By December, UNHCR re-opened nearly 90 of the 100 refugee schools closed several months earlier. The re-opened primary schools attempted to emphasize French language instruction to prepare Liberian students for possible future integration into Ivoirien society. Most Liberian students speak English, while schools in Côte d'Ivoire function in French, the country's official national language.

Although authorities and communities in Côte d'Ivoire remained generally hospitable to the large Liberian refugee population, refugees continued to complain of harassment by local security personnel. Some refugees and aid workers charged that harassment worsened during 1999.

USCR's site visit concluded that the size of UNHCR's protection staff in Côte d'Ivoire – two protection officers for 100,000 or more refugees spread along the country's long western border – was inadequate.

"The number of UNHCR protection staff remains woefully insufficient in Côte d'Ivoire," USCR reported. "The United States and other international donors should respond quickly to redress a protection situation that is fundamentally unethical and would not be tolerated in refugee crises in most other regions of the world."

UNHCR conducted workshops for local authorities to familiarize them with international refugee law and the mandate of UNHCR. Long-delayed plans to distribute identification cards to the refugee population – designed to clarify the legal status and rights of refugees in hopes of protecting them from mistreatment by local officials – proceeded slowly during the year. The government had issued identity cards to only about 3,000 refugees by late in the year.

Increasing numbers of Liberian refugees sought to apply for permanent resettlement in the United States during 1999. Delays and built-in restrictions in the U.S. resettlement program created tensions between UNHCR field staff and refugees expecting immediate entry into the United States.

"Refugees are aware of the U.S. resettlement program and often have unrealistic expectations that their own resettlement in the United States is imminent, according to UNHCR staff on the ground," USCR's post-trip report stated.

Displacement of Immigrants

Several million citizens of Burkina Faso have immigrated to Côte d'Ivoire for economic reasons over the years, making them one of the largest immigrant populations in Côte d'Ivoire. Approximately 10,000 immigrants from Burkina Faso, known as Burkinabe, fled from Côte d'Ivoire back to Burkina Faso in late 1999.

Local Ivoirien citizens forced the Burkinabe immigrants – many of whom had lived in Côte d'Ivoire for 10 years or more – to flee their farms in southwest Côte d'Ivoire after violent disputes over land rights linked to ethnic tensions. Several Burkinabe reportedly died in the November violence.

Côte d'Ivoire's interior minister called for "an immediate end to the expulsion and harassment of foreigners" by local communities in the southwest. Local Ivoirien chieftains, however, reportedly insisted that Burkinabe families leave.

Thousands of uprooted Burkinabe passed through local Red Cross aid centers for temporary assistance before leaving the country on buses during the final two months of the year. The governments of Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso agreed to establish a joint commission to consider providing compensation to Burkinabe families uprooted by the violence.

The vast majority of Burkinabe immigrants in other parts of the country remained unaffected by the violence.

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