U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Guinea-Bissau


Approximately 5,000 citizens of Guinea-Bissau were refugees at the end of 1999, including more than 1,000 in Portugal nearly 2,000 in Guinea-Conakry, about 1,000 in Senegal, and fewer than 1,000 in Gambia. About 50,000 residents of Guinea Bissau remained internally displaced at year's end.

Guinea-Bissau hosted about 5,000 refugees, primarily from Senegal. Small numbers of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia lived in the capital, Bissau.

Political Violence

Political violence during the second half of 1998 forced an estimated one-third of the nation's 1 million people to flee their homes.

Fighting broke out in June 1998 when President Joao Bernardo Vieira fired his top military commander, General Ansumane Mane. Troops loyal to Mane mutinied. Insurgent forces seized much of Bissau as well as large parts of the country's interior. Troops from neighboring Senegal and Guinea-Conakry intervened on the side of the president.

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

A political accord between the two sides in late 1998 called for power-sharing, the creation of a government of national unity, and the deployment of a small African peacekeeping force to help implement the agreement.

Continued tensions between the President and the military however, led to continued conflict in 1999. In May, fighting erupted again when a military junta ousted President Vieira from office. Government loyalists quickly surrendered. Calm returned to the capital within 72 hours. President Vieira fled to Portugal. By July, the last peacekeeping troops withdrew.

The May coup claimed more than 100 civilian lives and twice as many soldiers, according to one estimate. An estimated 2,000 persons died during the 11-month conflict. Landmines and unexploded shells in populated areas continued to cause casualties.

The military regime ceded power to a civilian government by year's end, following multi-party presidential and legislative elections in November.

Uprooted Population

The sustained 1998 violence in the capital forced most of the city's 300,000 residents to flee their homes to rural areas. At the outset of 1999, an estimated 200,000 people remained displaced.

During the first half of 1999, rural towns often accommodated twice their normal population as many families struggled to provide for 40 or more displaced people under one roof. The generosity of local residents toward the displaced population helped prevent a larger humanitarian crisis.

By June, most uprooted families had returned home. An estimated 50,000 internally displaced persons remained outside the capital at year's end. Many chose to settle temporarily with host families where they could contribute to farming activities.

Humanitarian Conditions

Relief organizations provided humanitarian assistance to some 600,000 citizens of Guinea-Bissau, including uprooted families who returned home, those who remained displaced, and war-affected populations in rural areas.

Relief agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) concluded their emergency operations by mid-year. Aid workers increasingly turned their attention to rehabilitation and development during the second half of the year.

The war aggravated already abysmal conditions in the country. About 40 percent of the country's doctors remained in exile at mid-year and hospital capacity was cut in half, according to an assessment by the World Health Organization. UNICEF supported reconstruction of approximately 40 schools.

An estimated 5,000 homes, housing more than 40,000 people, were partially or totally destroyed by repeated rounds of fighting in the capital. The International Committee of the Red Cross distributed about 2,000 tents to Bissau city residents in need of shelter. In August, the European Community Humanitarian Organization completed the reconstruction of 2,000 homes.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution in April supporting the establishment of a "Peace-building Support Office" in Guinea-Bissau. The UN program helped the government implement voluntary arms collection, de-mining programs, and encouraged local organizations and the national military to promote projects aimed at consolidating peace.

International donors initially indicated a willingness to provide even more aid and reconstruction money than UN agencies requested. However, in response to the May coup, donors placed their $200 million assistance package on hold, until the November elections.


More than 3,000 refugees from Guinea-Bissau returned home during 1999, primarily from Senegal and Cape Verde. Precise return figures were difficult to obtain because many families chose to repatriate on their own as conditions improved.

In October, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for $4.4 million to help returning refugees and internally displaced persons reintegrate. Annan noted that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already assisted more than 1,000 refugees to repatriate and "many other refugees are returning home of their own volition." Annan emphasized that reconstruction materials were urgently needed.

Approximately half of the 2,000 refugees in Guinea-Conakry had registered for repatriation to Guinea-Bissau by October. The repatriation exercise did not begin before year's end, however.

About 5,000 refugees remained outside Guinea Bissau at year's end. UN aid workers attributed repatriation delays to poor economic prospects in Guinea-Bissau, rather than to political or security concerns.

Refugees from Senegal

More than 5,000 Senegalese refugees and asylum seekers remained in Guinea-Bissau in 1999. They fled to Guinea-Bissau during the 1990s to escape ongoing violence in southern Senegal linked to an armed insurgency. The majority remained dispersed along the country's border with Senegal. UNHCR assisted some 600 in Jolmete camp, located about 25 miles (40 km) from the border.

The identity of the Senegalese population in Guinea-Bissau has historically been a matter of dispute. In the past, 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. Others alleged that these refugees were actually citizens of Guinea-Bissau who returned to their home country to escape the insurgency in Senegal.

In early 1998, authorities in Guinea-Bissau announced their intention to relocate the refugees to help diffuse border-tensions with Senegal. However, the violent upheaval in Guinea-Bissau that year effectively placed those plans on hold. At the end of 1999, the government had not begun relocating the Senegalese refugees.


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