Guinea hosted some 223,000 refugees at the end of 2003, including an estimated 170,000 from Liberia, about 43,000 from Sierra Leone, and more than 10,000 from Côte d'Ivoire. Nearly 30,000 refugees repatriated from Guinea to Sierra Leone during the year, while more than 35,000 new refugees arrived in Guinea from neighboring countries.
An estimated 20,000 Guineans remained internally displaced at year's end, although some estimates ranged much higher. About 5,000 Guineans were asylum seekers in industrialized countries.
Some 30,000 Guinean citizens who had immigrated to Côte d'Ivoire in previous years returned to Guinea during 2003 because of violence in Côte d'Ivoire.
A mix of political unrest, violence, and tentative progress toward peace in neighboring West African countries forced thousands of refugees into Guinea and allowed thousands of others to repatriate during 2003.
Hundreds of thousands of Liberians fled to Guinea during the 1990s to escape civil war in Liberia. An end to the war in 1996 enabled most refugees to repatriate, but 80,000 to 90,000 remained in Guinea because an armed insurgency continued in parts of Liberia. In mid 2003, renewed and intense fighting in Liberia between rebel groups seeking to depose President Charles Taylor and government soldiers pushed at least 25,000 new Liberian refugees into Guinea.
Many newly uprooted Liberians arrived in Guinea with no possessions after trekking on foot long distances through countless checkpoints, where armed groups stripped fleeing civilians of their personal belongings and forced them to pay bribes before allowing them to pass.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided newly arrived refugees with shelter, food, and other basic assistance from at transit centers in southern Guinea near the Guinea-Liberia border. UNHCR eventually transferred the refugees further inland to established camps. During the height of the influx, camps to accommodate Liberian refugees in the Nzerekore area reached or exceeded capacity, but funding shortfalls prohibited UNHCR from expanding housing. Many newly arrived Liberian refugees remained in temporary shelters and community tents for many days before UNHCR relocated them to more permanent housing structures or provided refugees with material to construct their own homes.
In late March 2003, Guinean border officials prevented some 6,000 Liberian refugees fleeing violence near the Guinea-Liberia border from crossing a bridge to enter Guinea. The Liberian refugees massed at the border eventually broke through a locked gate. During the daylong delay, several Liberian children and pregnant women drowned while trying to cross a swollen river separating the two countries.
In addition to new arrivals directly from Liberia, nearly 10,000 Liberian refugees entered eastern Guinea from refugee sites in Côte d'Ivoire that had become unsafe because of civil war and unrest in that country during 2003.
By year's end, an estimated 170,000 Liberian refugees lived in Guinea, including about 90,000 in camps and transit centers, and up to 80,000 who lived on their own, integrated among local residents in small villages and urban areas. More than 15,000 lived in Conakry, the capital.
The largest camp, Kouankan, housed more than 32,000 Liberian refugees in the Nzerekore area of southern Guinea's remote Forest Region. Lainé camp, built in 2002 and expanded to accommodate the influx of new arrivals in 2003, also sheltered about 32,000 Liberians. Kola camp, located about 50 miles (80 km) from the Guinea-Liberia border, sheltered nearly 7,000 refugees.
As in previous years, poor cooperation between Liberian refugee leaders and aid workers hindered assistance and protection efforts, particularly in Kouankan camp. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels based in southern Guinea, routinely entered Kouankan camp, harassed refugees, confiscated relief items, and reportedly engaged in forced conscriptions. UNHCR relocated some 7,000 Liberians in Kouankan camp – primarily refugees endangered by the presence of LURD militias and armed supporters – 180 miles (300 km) further inland to several camps near Albadariah in the Kissidougou area of Guinea during mid 2003, where they joined some 10,000 Liberian refugees already there. UNHCR suspended relocation operations late in the year because of lack of vehicles and weather-deteriorated roads and bridges.
UNHCR urged Guinean officials to remove rebels from camps in the Nzerekore area, particularly Kounkan. Guinean officials identified a site to build an internment camp for armed elements that had infiltrated refugee camps, but did not act further by year's end. Royal Canadian Mounted Police trained security officials working in and around refugee camps in the Nzerekore area during the year.
Guinean officials and UNHCR disagreed over a printing contract for identity documents, blocking the distribution of identity cards to the Liberian refugee population, which left refugees without proper documentation and vulnerable to harassment from local officials.
Food deliveries reached all camps without serious interruption during the year, and several thousand refugees worked with local residents on agricultural projects. Nearly 22,000 Liberian refugee students attended schools in their camps.
Refugees from Sierra Leone
Approximately 43,000 Sierra Leonean refugees lived in Guinea at the end of 2003. They fled to Guinea during the 1990s because of civil war and human rights violations in Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands spontaneously repatriated when the civil war ended in 2002.
An estimated 150,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have departed Guinea to return home to Sierra Leone during the past three years, including some 28,000 in 2003. UNHCR assisted nearly all Sierra Leonean repatriations during 2003. About 25,000 repatriated during the first half of the year, as refugees hurriedly returned home to reclaim land and plant crops at the start of the rainy season. Fewer than 3,000 repatriated during the second half of the year.
Many returning refugees traveled for four days to reach the only border crossing point opened by Guinean authorities for repatriation activities. UNHCR eventually constructed a temporary causeway on a section of road from Guinea's refugee camps to a more convenient border crossing, shaving three days off the refugee's arduous journey home. UNHCR suspended repatriation operations twice during late 2003 for lack of money to maintain vehicles, roads and bridges.
Those remaining at the end of 2003 included about 15,000 in three main camps near Albadariah in the Kissidougou area, and an estimated 25,000 or more who lived on their own, primarily in isolated border areas. More than 7,000 remained in Kountaya camp. Some 4,000 lived in Boreah camp, while Telikoro camp sheltered more than 3,000. UNHCR closed Sembakouya camp in July.
Aid workers provided food, health, sanitation, and other services to the camps. More than 3,000 refugee children attended 28 primary and secondary schools in their camps. Sierra Leonean refugees received full food rations during the year. Many cultivated plots of land to supplement their diet, and participated in income-generation and vocational training programs.
Although government officials distributed identity cards to Sierra Leonean refugees for a second consecutive year, after several years of delays, many still lacked proper identification. Local authorities continued to harass and arbitrarily arrest and detain those without identity cards during 2003.
Refugees from Côte d'Ivoire
Despite a peace agreement to end the civil war in Côte d'Ivoire in early 2003, continued unrest pushed nearly 7,000 Ivorian refugees into Guinea during the year. An estimated 10,000 Ivorian refugees remained in Guinea at year's end. Guinean military authorities often restricted aid worker's access to the newly arrived refugees along the Guinea-Côte d'Ivoire border for security reasons. Unlike in 2002, however, Guinean authorities did not impede the entry of Ivorian refugees during 2003, according to UNHCR.
More than 7,000 Ivorian refugees lived in Nonah transit center near the Guinea-Liberia border at year's end. An additional 3,000 lived on their own in rural villages. UNHCR only provided basic assistance to those who registered with authorities and resided in Nonah transit center. It is likely that several thousand more Ivorian asylum seekers entered Guinea and chose to remain unregistered and uncounted in border communities.
Ivorian officials encouraged Ivorian refugees living in Guinea to return home and "carried out voluntary repatriations," of several hundred in early 2003, when they visited Nonah transit center in October to "solicit candidates for repatriation," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported. But, UNHCR deemed Côte d'Ivoire to lack the minimum-security conditions for refugee repatriation. Despite this, nearly 1,000 Ivorian refugees repatriated during 2003.
Tens of thousands of Guineans became internally displaced in 2000-2001 when Sierra Leone's civil war spilled into Guinea's border areas. The violence left several border villages heavily damaged.
The overwhelming majority fled to the homes of friends and relatives in nearby towns or in other regions of the country. Most returned home or settled permanently into host communities by the end of 2003.
During the past two years, more than 100,000 Guineans who had immigrated to Côte d'Ivoire returned after the outbreak of civil war in there in late 2002 endangering foreigners. Most arrived in Guinea's remote Forest Region, where they remained at the end of 2003.
About 50,000 Guinean returnees lived with host families. "While the integration of these returnees has generally been smooth and has not led to noticeable social tensions, they have placed a considerable strain on weak social services," OCHA reported. An additional 50,000 returnees remained internally displaced along the Guinea-Côte d'Ivoire border, where they lived in "precarious conditions" and "without external assistance," according to OCHA.