Approximately 215,000 Liberians were refugees at the end of 2001, including about 100,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, some 90,000 in Guinea, at least 15,000 in Sierra Leone, about 9,000 in Ghana, and at least 1,000 in Nigeria. An estimated 80,000 Liberians were internally displaced at year's end.
Up to 80,000 Liberians fled their homes during the year, while some 2,000 refugees repatriated to Liberia.
At least 60,000 refugees from Sierra Leone remained in Liberia at the end of 2001.
Liberia's seven-year civil war ended in 1996 after killing an estimated 150,000 people. The war's indiscriminate violence forced virtually all of the country's 3 million people to flee their homes for periods ranging from a few weeks to many years.
More than 80 percent of all uprooted Liberians have returned home, but sustained peace has eluded the country. Insurgent attacks in remote northern Lofa County began in 1998 and intensified during 2000, pushing an estimated 50,000 persons from their homes. Under the guise of fighting insurgents, Liberian government forces committed widespread abuses against local populations.
An international arms embargo remained in place against the Liberian government during 2000 because of Liberia's role in destabilizing neighboring countries. The international community also roundly condemned Liberian President Charles Taylor for trafficking in illicit diamonds from mines in neighboring Sierra Leone.
2001 Politics and Violence
Attacks by insurgents occurred more frequently during 2001. "The situation in Liberia has not improved," a UN report concluded late in the year.
A dissident force known as Liberia United for Reconstruction and Development (LURD) reportedly captured five border villages in Lofa County during the year. Violence spread to central Liberia's Gbarpolu County in September, closer to the capital, Monrovia. The Liberian government accused neighboring Guinea of supporting the insurgent attacks and activated 15,000 combatants who had been demobilized since the civil war ended.
The number of Liberian casualties remained unknown. Government troops killed, detained, or raped local residents during the year, according to Human Rights Watch. Residents in the conflict zone reported that government soldiers forcibly conscripted young males. Government troops tortured suspected dissidents, Amnesty International charged.
"Liberia is drifting back into another round of brutal and bloody civil war," a group of exiled Liberian journalists declared.
The UN Security Council slapped sanctions on Liberia in mid-2001 to block Liberian diamond sales, restrict international travel by top Liberian officials, and sustain the arms embargo. A UN investigation found, however, that Liberian officials were effectively circumventing the arms embargo.
Newly Uprooted Liberians
An estimated 80,000 Liberians fled their homes during 2001 as violence continued in Lofa County and spread to new areas. Most newly uprooted families remained in Liberia, but approximately 20,000 persons fled to neighboring countries.
The scale of population upheaval was uncertain because much of the conflict zone remained inaccessible to relief workers. Although most displaced people originated from Lofa County, smaller numbers fled from central Liberia's Bong and Gbarpolu Counties. The newly displaced population joined tens of thousands of other Liberians who remained uprooted because of warfare in previous years.
Liberians forced to flee during 2001 included former refugees who had recently repatriated, as well as families who were already displaced and were compelled to run a second time. Neighboring Guinea closed its border, blocking large numbers from entering.
Liberian government troops reportedly prevented many male residents of Lofa County from escaping. Combatants raped women along roads as they tried to flee, according to a news account. Relief workers deployed vehicles to transport some uprooted families to safer locations.
Liberians who reached camps for displaced persons sometimes found the camps dangerous. Widening violence threatened a displacement camp in December, forcing thousands of camp residents to flee. Relief agencies suspended aid to camps in Gbarpolu County late in the year because of security concerns. An international relief agency reported "total panic" among newly displaced families at one location in December.
By late 2001, Liberia's internally displaced population was scattered among six counties and Monrovia. At least six primary camps existed, sheltering some 35,000 people, including a disproportionate number of unaccompanied women and children, according to aid workers. Thousands of other displaced Liberians found food and housing with local residents who strained to accommodate the influx.
Displaced populations typically lacked adequate food, medicines, and clean drinking water, and lived in makeshift shelters. Malnutrition was evident among some displaced persons who had spent weeks surviving in forests. Partial humanitarian assessments in Lofa County found significant damage to homes and crops. Government travel restrictions prevented the World Food Program from delivering supplies to some displacement sites for more than a month.
Relief groups expressed concern that international opposition to the Liberian government was choking off humanitarian funding for the country. "The level of aid being provided to those displaced by the fighting remains wholly inadequate," reported Médecins Sans Frontières.
Repatriation and Reintegration
Some 350,000 to 400,000 Liberian refugees have repatriated since 1997, including at least 40,000 returnees during 2000. Only 2,000 refugees returned home during 2001, however, because of heightened violence.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suspended its formal repatriation program and ceased most reintegration projects in late 2000 and throughout 2001 as the country's instability worsened. The agency closed three field offices in March and remained unable, for the second consecutive year, to work in one of the country's most important returnee areas, Lofa County, because of violence there.
Liberian President Taylor criticized UNHCR for not doing more to encourage the repatriation of Liberian refugees, particularly refugees living in dangerous areas of Guinea. A handful of private international relief agencies continued to offer small loans, health care, and education projects to support reintegration.
Liberians faced the daunting challenge of rebuilding their lives in a country devastated by years of war and deepening political isolation from the international community. A UN study ranked Liberia next-to-last in development among 175 countries. More than 80 percent of the population lived in "abject poverty," a UN report concluded in November. Because of the ongoing armed insurgency, more than 20 percent of Liberians remained "war affected" five years after the civil war ended.
The capital, which still lacked electricity and running water in most areas, remained overcrowded with a population up to twice its pre-war size. Unemployment was pervasive, and per capita income was one-third of pre-war levels. Liberians fortunate enough to have jobs typically waited months to receive paychecks that averaged the equivalent of less than $15 per month.
Liberian society exhibited a "growing despair," a top UN emergency relief official concluded in May. Large numbers of educated, skilled Liberians have not returned home and have apparently chosen to live permanently elsewhere. The number of hospital doctors nationwide has dropped from 550 to 25, according to a UN report. Child vaccination rates declined from 80 percent in 1987 to 20 percent in the late 1990s, the UN reported.
International dislike for Liberia's government has translated into fewer aid dollars from donors. International humanitarian assistance to Liberia totaled about $30 million in 2001, compared to $138 million in 1998. The European Union pledged about $20 million over two years to help reintegrate returning refugees and displaced persons.
"If the international community fails to assist the country," UNHCR warned in November, "any prospects of sustainable reintegration for Liberian returnees will probably disintegrate."
Refugees from Sierra Leone
Tens of thousands of refugees fled from Sierra Leone to Liberia during the 1990s to escape civil war. However, thousands of refugees have gradually repatriated to Sierra Leone in recent years as conditions in Liberia have worsened. Approximately 60,000 Sierra Leonean refugees remained in Liberia at the end of 2001.
About half of the refugee population lived on their own in Lofa County, near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border, where ongoing violence rendered them largely inaccessible to relief workers. The remaining 30,000 to 35,000 resided in five designated camps closer to Monrovia. The largest camp, Sinje, housed some 15,000 refugees about 50 miles (80 km) from the capital. Another 18,000 lived in four camps – Banjor, Samukai, VOA-1, and Zuannah – all located on the outskirts of Monrovia.
Sinje camp residents have complained in recent years of periodic harassment by Liberian security personnel. An estimated 10,000 refugees chose to return to Sierra Leone during 2001 because of concerns about their security in Liberia. However, more than 1,000 additional refugees moved into Sinje camp during the year after fleeing war-affected areas of Liberia.
UNHCR conducted workshops for 300 government security personnel to educate them about basic refugee rights. High turnover among government staff, however, hampered efforts to inform officials about refugee matters, UNHCR reported.
Some refugees in camps received food aid; others did not qualify for assistance because aid agencies believed the refugees were able to support themselves through farming or small-business activities. Refugees cultivated about about 600 acres (some 250 hectares) during the year on land borrowed from local residents.
A health assessment in May found that "malnutrition rates were on the rise," prompting relief agencies to bolster food distributions from 50 percent of full rations to 80 percent for those in need. Aid workers continued to operate supplemental feeding programs for malnourished children, while health workers conducted workshops to educate refugees about prevention of malaria, respiratory infections, and sexually transmitted diseases.
UNHCR distributed new plastic sheeting to residents of Sinje camp and to the neediest refugees in other camps after a housing assessment determined that refugees' homes needed repairs to protect against the area's tropical rains.
Funding constraints forced UNHCR to curtail some assistance programs. The agency reduced vocation-education projects and delayed distribution of mosquito nets that protect against malaria.
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