Guinea hosted about 190,000 refugees at the end of 2001, including approximately 100,000 from Sierra Leone and some 90,000 from Liberia. At least 70,000 refugees repatriated from Guinea to Sierra Leone during the year.
An estimated 100,000 Guineans were internally displaced at year's end, although some estimates ranged much higher. About 5,000 Guineans applied for asylum in industrialized countries during 2001.
General Refugee Issues
Throughout the 1990s, Guinea hosted more refugees than most other African countries. But a combination of remote refugee locations, poor roads, inadequate funding, mismanagement by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), uncertainty over the size of the refugee population, and corruption within the Guinean government and among some aid workers conspired to weaken refugee assistance and protection.
A UNHCR assessment in January 2001 found numerous flaws in the relief operation in Guinea. "Minimum standards of assistance are barely met by the program," the report asserted.
"The UNHCR program in ... Guinea has long suffered from uncertainty about the numbers of refugees being assisted there," the UNHCR study acknowledged. "There is a high level of skepticism and uncertainty about the reliability of the figures on the part of key partners and others." The report charged that a 1999 census of the refugee population was "tainted by corruption."
The assessment found that food assistance was irregular and often failed to reach the neediest refugees. Many houses for refugees offered poor protection from the region's heavy rains, according to the study.
The report suggested that UNHCR lacked enough "qualified and experienced staff" in Guinea and noted that demoralized aid workers on the ground "express frustration and a degree of hopelessness" about UNHCR operations and the failure to meet refugees' needs.
UNHCR took steps to improve its program in Guinea during 2001, but difficulties continued. When the year began, UNHCR estimated that more than 400,000 refugees lived in the country. By year's end, the agency judged that fewer than 200,000 refugees resided in Guinea. Although refugee repatriations to Sierra Leone accounted for about one-third of the decline, most of the dramatic reduction was apparently the result of inflated UNHCR estimates in previous years.
Refugees from Sierra Leone: Before Relocation
More than a quarter-million Sierra Leonean refugees lived in Guinea at the start of 2001. Most had fled an armed insurgency and brutal human rights abuses in their country during the 1990s. The vast majority of refugees had settled into camps and villages within a few miles of Guinea's long border with Sierra Leone.
Attacks into Guinea by Sierra Leonean rebels in late 2000 targeted numerous refugee sites and forced aid agencies to evacuate refugee zones. Some sectors of Guinean society, including top government officials and some members of the military, turned against the refugee population and branded them a security risk.
In the final months of 2000, tens of thousands of refugees attempted to flee the dangerous border area by repatriating spontaneously to Sierra Leone or seeking refuge in other parts of Guinea. Tens of thousands of other Sierra Leonean refugees remained in the border region, cut off from humanitarian assistance and unable to flee.
In early 2001, Guinean troops pushed Sierra Leonean rebels out of Guinea. UNHCR and other relief agencies deployed emergency teams to the heavily damaged border zone.
"To get access to refugees in the southeast of Guinea has become the biggest challenge for UNHCR in the world," UNHCR reported in January. International relief agencies publicly warned in February that refugees and local residents along the border faced a "very precarious situation." Aid organizations persuaded Guinean officials to curb their anti-refugee rhetoric.
An aid convoy reached refugees and displaced Guineans in the remote border area known as the "Parrot's Beak" in February – the first assistance able to reach the region in four months. Roadblocks erected by security-conscious government troops and armed militia impeded many refugees who wished to flee the area.
During the first months of the year, UNHCR considered launching a project to help refugees escape Guinea by repatriating them through rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone, but quickly dropped the idea as unwise. UNHCR and other relief agencies agreed to transfer as many refugees as possible to new, safer camps in Guinea farther from the border. Aid organizations, however, criticized the slow pace of planning for the relocation.
Sierra Leonean Refugees: Relocation
UNHCR and the government eventually identified sites for four refugee camps, located in remote areas up to 60 miles (100 km) from the border. UNHCR funded construction of new roads and erected 100 bridges to facilitate vehicle access to the new camps.
More than 50,000 Sierra Leonean refugees chose to transfer to the new locations, traveling by foot or on trucks supplied by aid agencies. Approximately 50,000 other refugees refused to relocate to the new camps, remaining in the dangerous border area because they felt well-integrated with the local population and regarded the new camps as economically isolated and located among potentially unfriendly communities.
Refugees at the four new camps initially lived in communal shelters until houses were constructed for individual families. Significant numbers of relocated refugees were still living without privacy in communal shelters at year's end because international donors failed to provide 25 percent of the funding UNHCR required in Guinea.
The camp transfer fared poorly in the first few weeks. Numerous children died of malaria in April, in part because of poor camp conditions. However, health conditions improved during the final half of the year, according to health surveys. Children received vaccinations against measles. About 17,000 refugee pupils attended informal schools held in tents while awaiting construction of new classrooms later in the year.
The government, with financial and logistical support from UNHCR, provided a special security force to guard the new camps and launched a public information campaign that encouraged local residents to welcome the relocated refugee population. Some refugees negotiated with local residents to acquire farmland. Aid workers specially marked some 17,000 trees against cutting for firewood to protect the environment near the new camps.
Despite improved security offered by the relocation, refugees struggled to adapt. The new camps were isolated from major markets, and government rules restricted the refugees' mobility, hindering their ability to engage in commerce. Violence erupted between refugees and police at one camp in June, resulting in serious injuries to six police and the arrest of more than 120 refugees.
Most aid programs in the border area remained suspended during the second half of the year because of lingering security concerns and UNHCR's desire to encourage more refugee movement toward new camps farther inland. Refugees on the border had access, however, to a food-for-work program and received help in reconstructing their homes. UNHCR protection officers conducted occasional assessment trips to monitor refugees' security in the border region.
"UNHCR remains concerned about the security and safety of refugees and staff in Guinea," a UNHCR report acknowledged in September.
At year's end, about 55,000 Sierra Leonean refugees lived in the new camps, and an estimated 45,000 refugees remained along the Guinea-Sierra Leone border, according to UNHCR.
Sierra Leonean Refugees: Repatriation
Approximately 70,000 or more Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated during 2001 in response to dangers in Guinea and increased hostility toward the refugee population from Guinean authorities and some local residents.
UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations found themselves in the awkward position of helping refugees repatriate to Sierra Leone even though aid workers considered Sierra Leone dangerous because of continued warfare there. After much internal debate, UNHCR refused to "promote" refugees' return to Sierra Leone, but agreed to "facilitate" the repatriation of refugees who insisted on departing Guinea.
The situation was complicated by the fact that up to 90 percent of all Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea originated from rebel-controlled areas of Sierra Leone – that country's most dangerous region.
Some 30,000 to 50,000 refugees repatriated with help from UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and other agencies, according to various reports. Tens of thousands of others repatriated spontaneously, without direct help from aid workers in Guinea.
Many refugees fled from their long-time homes in the border region to the Guinean capital, Conakry, where they boarded boats to travel along the coast to the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. Some 10,000 repatriated overland directly into rebel-controlled areas of Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch reported.
Refugees attempting to reach repatriation centers in Guinea commonly encountered harassment at scores of highway checkpoints erected by Guinean soldiers and militia early in the year. Many refugees were forced to pay bribes to continue their journey, and 11 refugees died in detention in Guinea in late 2000 and early 2001, according to Human Rights Watch.
Although harassment reportedly diminished later in the year, some adult male refugees remained vulnerable to detention by Guinean authorities looking for Sierra Leonean rebel infiltrators.
As the security situation gradually improved in Sierra Leone late in the year, UNHCR implemented a campaign to inform the refugee population in Guinea about the mixed conditions for repatriation in their home country.
Refugees from Liberia
Hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees fled to Guinea during the 1990s to escape civil war in Liberia. An end to the war in 1997 enabled most refugees to repatriate, but about 90,000 remained in Guinea because of a continued insurgency in their home region of northern Liberia.
Hundreds of new Liberian refugees were registered in Guinea during 2001 as violence in northern Liberia worsened. Thousands of other Liberian refugees are believed to have entered Guinea unofficially, without being counted. Guinean authorities closed the border with Liberia and reportedly blocked thousands of other would-be refugees either from entering or from properly registering with UNHCR after arriving.
UNHCR evacuated its staff from the Liberian refugee zone in late 2000 and early 2001 because of security problems, leaving the refugee population on its own.
Many Liberian refugees "feel that they have been entirely abandoned by the UN" and might resort to violence because of their frustration, a UNHCR report warned in January.
Government officials decreed that all Liberian refugees in Guinea should move away from the country's insecure border with Liberia and should transfer to designated refugee camps. At least 2,000 long-term refugees migrated about 60 miles (100 km) from the Macenta and Gueckedou areas of Guinea to the region of Nzerekore. Tens of thousands of Liberian refugees who had supported themselves in small villages near the border suddenly lost homes, jobs, and farms.
UNHCR gradually returned modest numbers of aid workers to the region and rushed to establish a new camp, Kola, while struggling to improve conditions at the lone existing camp, Kounkan. Guinea's security problems disrupted food deliveries to Kounkan camp during the first half of the year, causing malnutrition among some of the camp's 13,000 occupants.
Poor cooperation between Liberian refugee leaders and aid workers hindered assistance efforts. A UNHCR report in January complained that refugee leaders "are undemocratic and may even block communication" between relief workers and the refugee population.
UNHCR funded much-needed sanitary improvements at Kounkan camp, including new latrines, 20 new water distribution points, and new garbage containers, while relief agencies distributed clothes, soap, sleeping mats, and cooking utensils. UNHCR supported construction of three dozen permanent classrooms for 3,000 students in Kounkan.
Kola camp, located about 50 miles (80 km) from the border, opened late in the year and housed nearly 6,000 refugees by year's end. Camp residents lived in communal tents while constructing their own houses. A health clinic and school operated in temporary structures, with about 800 students attending the camp school.
An estimated 70,000 Liberian refugees continued to live on their own outside of camps. About 3,000 attended local schools, primarily in or near the town of Nzerekore. Government policy prevented UNHCR from providing regular assistance to noncamp refugees.
More than 300 unaccompanied minors received aid during the year as relief workers took more aggressive steps to identify and assist them.
Although Guinea has long hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries, Guinea largely avoided massive, prolonged upheavals of its own population until 2000. When Sierra Leone's civil war spilled into Guinea's border region in late 2000, however, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Guineans became internally displaced.
Additional new population displacement occurred in early 2001, as Guinean government troops massed at the border and launched attacks into Sierra Leone. Heavy border fighting left some 90 Guineans dead in January. The violence of late 2000 and early 2001 killed 1,000 people, according to some estimates, and left numerous Guinean villages heavily damaged.
Although fighting quieted by February, the border remained tense most of the year. An estimated 100,000 Guineans remained internally displaced at the end of 2001. Guinean officials claimed that as many as 350,000 people were displaced, but aid workers widely considered that estimate to be greatly inflated.
Guineans fled in all directions. Tens of thousands reportedly fled 120 miles (200 km) northward, to the relative safety of Kankan Province. Others moved southward, toward Conakry and the town of Kindia. Many families fled shorter distances and moved into the homes of friends and relatives, while some found shelter in schools and other public buildings.
According to a UN report, the ethnicity of displaced families often determined the direction of their flight. Families attempted to reach the territory of "friendly" ethnic groups and sought to avoid regions where their arrival might inadvertently trigger ethnic tensions. Armed groups – primarily civilian militia – beat and killed some displaced persons traveling along roads, Amnesty International charged.
The large-scale displacement created "a considerable burden" in a country that ranked as one of the poorest in the world and already hosted large refugee populations, a UNHCR report found. Heavy damage to 11 health clinics and 58 schools complicated efforts to support displaced families as they attempted to return home.
A UN funding appeal warned that a "disparity" existed between aid to refugees and aid to displaced persons in Guinea, creating "a significant potential source of tension." Health workers in some areas reported that "malnutrition has increased sharply," while health conditions in other areas remained satisfactory.
The World Food Program reached the Forest Region for the first time in March to deliver emergency supplies to about 30,000 displaced persons. About 170,000 displaced and war-affected Guineans received food aid by May. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Action Against Hunger organized a system to monitor health conditions among displaced persons.
A UN appeal to international donors for $35 million to assist relief programs in Guinea received only about one-third of that amount, according to a UN report. In late 2001, UN agencies issued a new and larger funding appeal of $43 million for 2002.