An estimated half-million or more Ivorians were newly uprooted at the end of 2002, including at least 500,000 internally displaced persons and about 25,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
Some 20,000 Ivorian refugees lived in Liberia, at least 2,000 were in Guinea, 1,000 were in Mali, and nearly 2,000 Ivorians were asylum seekers in industrialized countries.
An estimated 80,000 immigrants who lived in Côte d'Ivoire also fled the country during the year.
About 50,000 refugees from other countries remained in Côte d'Ivoire at year's end, the vast majority from Liberia. Some 20,000 new Liberian refugees arrived in Côte d'Ivoire during 2002, while 20,000 Liberian refugees repatriated because of violence in Côte d'Ivoire.
Civil War in Côte d'Ivoire
Political, religious, and ethnic tensions in Côte d'Ivoire erupted into civil war during 2002, catching most Ivorians and international diplomats by surprise.
Low-level political and communal violence repeatedly shook Côte d'Ivoire during 1999–2001. Localized violence particularly targeted immigrants and migrant workers from other West African countries who have lived in Côte d'Ivoire for many years – sometimes for generations – and constitute up to 25 percent of the country's 16 million population.
Many Ivorians blamed foreign residents for Côte d'Ivoire's economic problems and viewed them as competitors for jobs, land, and political power. Tens of thousands of immigrants and migrant workers fled Côte d'Ivoire during 1999–2001 and returned to their countries of origin.
Côte d'Ivoire's growing instability exploded into civil war in September 2002. A rebel group known as the Patriotic Movement of Côte d'Ivoire (MPCI) materialized virtually overnight and immediately seized key cities in the northern half of the country.
Rebels charged that the Ivorian government engaged in political and religious discrimination against the large Muslim population in the north, denying them a fair share of political power and economic benefits.
MPCI leaders demanded the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo, new elections, and changes to the constitution. Government officials accused neighboring Burkina Faso of supporting the rebels.
Two additional rebel groups formed in western Côte d'Ivoire in November and quickly captured several towns. International diplomats as well as local residents charged that the western rebel groups, known as the Movement for Justice and Peace and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Greater West, contained combatants from Liberia who were particularly prone to looting and human rights violations.
Pro-government militias erected roadblocks along major roads and reportedly harassed foreign residents. Villagers in the west uncovered a mass grave containing the bodies of 120 civilians allegedly massacred by government forces. "Flagrant violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have occurred," UN relief officials stated in December.
The UN Security Council condemned the fighting and expressed "grave concern" about the war's impact on civilians. France deployed more than 1,000 soldiers to Côte d'Ivoire to "preserve stability." Rebels in the west attacked the French troops in December.
"The security situation in the western region ... remains highly volatile despite the presence of French and loyalist troops," the World Food Program (WFP) reported at year's end. "At present, the movement of people is very limited, and there is no electricity, water, or telephone connection, and hospitals, banks, and schools are closed."
The outbreak of warfare and human rights violations forced 500,000 to 700,000 people to flee their homes in the final four months of 2002. Some estimates of the uprooted population ranged as high as 1 million. Nearly 25,000 Ivorians became refugee and asylum seekers, primarily in Liberia.
"The current instability in Côte d'Ivoire threatens to trigger massive population upheaval if fighting between rebels and government forces continues to spread," an analysis by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) stated in the first weeks of hostilities.
USCR warned that many Ivorian residents would have few good options for safe flight because of insecurity in neighboring Liberia and overcrowded refugee camps across the western border in Guinea.
The single largest displacement reportedly occurred in the northern town of Bouake, the country's second-largest city, where 200,000 residents fled after the town fell to rebel forces. Hundreds of thousands also fled from western villages when rebels and government troops clashed there in late November and December.
Tens of thousands of uprooted northern residents passed through Yamoussoukro, the capital city in central Côte d'Ivoire, on their way to Abidjan and other southern locations where they found shelter with family or friends.
Many displaced persons in the west fled toward the key western town of Man. Displaced populations unable to reach the homes of friends or relatives moved into church compounds, UN office compounds, government social centers, and partially constructed buildings.
Rebels in some areas attempted to block populations from fleeing, according to local reports. Some families fled through forests to avoid highway checkpoints patrolled by combatants and undisciplined civilian militias.
Some Ivorians traveled on foot for a week to reach Guinea, only to find that Guinean officials had closed the border. Some people managed to cross the border surreptitiously, while others reportedly hid on the Ivorian side of the border until Guinean authorities reopened their border weeks later.
The massive population upheaval occurred beyond the reach of most humanitarian agencies and journalists who were largely confined in Abidjan, the country's largest city, for security reasons, making accurate assessments of numbers and conditions difficult.
No estimates of the nationwide death toll existed at year's end, and the war's impact on the population remained poorly documented.
The International Committee of the Red Cross obtained partial access to rebel areas and unofficially became the lead international agency providing limited assistance. WFP managed to establish a base for food deliveries in the northern city of Korhogo, about 390 miles (630 km) north of Abidjan.
A handful of other agencies also operated aid programs where security permitted, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Against Hunger, Care, the local Red Cross, UNICEF, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Access to western zones of the country remains unpredictable and nearly impossible due to rebel presence and sporadic fighting.
Access to northern rebel-held areas remains unpredictable," the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in December. "This reality is creating daunting technical obstacles for the delivery of relief to affected populations and the relocation of trapped refugees and internally displaced persons."
As the year ended, relief organizations appealed to international donors for $16 million to support humanitarian programs in Côte d'Ivoire.
Uprooted Immigrants in Côte d'Ivoire
The outbreak of war intensified popular sentiments against the estimated 4 million African immigrants and migrant workers residing in Côte d'Ivoire, particularly the estimated 2 million people from Burkina Faso.
Ivorian government officials charged that Burkina Faso supported rebel forces, provoking widespread suspicions among Ivorians against virtually all foreigners.
USCR called on the Ivorian government in October "to halt its campaign of violence and intimidation against Côte d'Ivoire's foreign residents." USCR said that "by issuing blanket statements ... that provoke suspicion of all non-Ivorians, the Ivorian government creates tremendous dangers ... for the many innocent foreign residents who contribute to Côte d'Ivoire's economic growth and prosperity."
In Abidjan, some 12,000 or more residents – primarily immigrants – fled their homes when anti-foreigner mobs attacked their neighborhoods and government officials destroyed entire shantytowns in searches for rebel sympathizers.
Large numbers of foreign nationals congregated at their respective national embassies in Abidjan seeking safety. Elsewhere in the country, frightened immigrants boarded buses for transportation out of Côte d'Ivoire.
Approximately 80,000 immigrants fled Côte d'Ivoire during 2002, including some 30,000 to Guinea, 30,000 to Burkina Faso, 10,000 to Mali, 2,000 to Ghana, and nearly 10,000 to various other West African countries, according to compilations by UN officials.
Several thousand immigrants fled westward into Liberia, where they became refugees while awaiting transit to their home countries. It is possible that tens of thousands of other immigrants evacuated from Côte d'Ivoire without being counted.
Refugees from Liberia
Côte d'Ivoire's civil war quickly overran sites housing Liberian refugees on the western edge of the country during 2002, placing tens of thousands of Liberian refugees at risk.
At the beginning of 2002, most of the Liberian refugee population lived peacefully along a 300-mile (500 km) corridor near the Côte d'Ivoire-Liberia border.
The majority of refugees had fled Liberia's civil war during the 1990s and lived a somewhat integrated lifestyle in small Ivorian villages, towns, and rural sites where they supported themselves, but remained vulnerable to local discrimination.
About 15,000 occupied the sole official refugee camp, Nicla, where several thousand of the newest and neediest refugees received food assistance.
Continued warfare and government repression in Liberia pushed some 20,000 new refugees into Côte d'Ivoire in early 2002. A USCR site visit to the refugee zone in July found inadequate food and medical care for new arrivals.
A USCR report in July also warned that some long-term refugees received no food aid even though they were not yet able to support themselves.
"Long-term Liberian refugees as well as new arrivals are paying the price for a 70 percent reduction in funding to UNHCR/Côte d'Ivoire during the past five years. [UNHCR's] two field offices are currently understaffed, their resources insufficient," the USCR report stated.
In the months prior to the outbreak of war, UNHCR was engaged in negotiations with Ivorian government officials to establish up to eight new settlements to house Liberian refugees and enhance their ability to support themselves.
Aid workers were also constructing 90 new classrooms for use by Liberian and Ivorian students to facilitate local integration.
As the war spread closer to refugee sites, USCR warned in October that "tens of thousands of Liberian refugees living in the western border zone could be forced to flee for their lives." The prediction proved correct in late November when western rebels attacked Danane, a border town containing thousands of refugees as well as Ivorian residents.
The presence of Liberian combatants in the Côte d'Ivoire conflict intensified many Ivorians' suspicions toward Liberian refugees. In Abidjan, UNHCR arranged emergency shelter for 2,000 refugees after government officials evicted them from their homes there. Assailants beat and harassed occupants of some refugee communities.
In western Côte d'Ivoire, the refugee population fled in all directions and was largely inaccessible to UNHCR and other aid workers. Several thousand refugees evacuated Nicla camp, while thousands of others fled to Nicla in hopes of safety.
Some refugees returned to Liberia despite lingering dangers there. About 1,000 fled to Guinea. Thousands of refugees found themselves stranded after rebel forces in the southwest corner of Côte d'Ivoire, near Tabou, deliberately damaged a river ferry used by refugees to cross back to Liberia.
UNHCR attempted to evacuate refugees from Nicla camp and transfer them to a safer location in Côte d'Ivoire or in a nearby country. Foreign governments and local Ivorian officials refused to accept the refugees, however.
About 8,000 Liberians remained trapped at Nicla camp at year's end, and about 50,000 others remained on their own without assistance.
"UNHCR is concerned that refugees ... will become targets for armed attacks and forced military recruitment," UNHCR stated in the final weeks of 2002.