The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says at least 15,000 Ivorians, mostly children, have fled to neighboring Liberia fearing Ivory Coast’s violent post-electoral political stand-off could spark civil war.
Incumbent Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, continues to refuse to cede power to U.N.-endorsed presidential election winner, Alassane Ouattara, following last month’s presidential poll.
The dispute has sparked a violent political power struggle that could reignite a 2002-2003 civil war.
As regional powers continue to seek a diplomatic solution, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says Ivorians are fleeing by the thousands to neighboring Liberia.
UNHCR has registered just over 15,000 refugees, though there could be as many as 20,000. Nearly two-thirds are children.
U.N. Children’s Fund Representative to Liberia, Isabel Crowley, said they anticipate as many 50,000 to 100,000 refugees.
“Everyday we have 1,000 to 2,000 coming through the border. In the beginning, we were having about 200, but now we have got 1,000, 2,000 and — certain times when there are escalations on the rhetoric in Abidjan – we even have 3,000 people coming through,” she said.
The refugees are coming from Ivory Coast’s troubled western regions, which experienced some of the worst fighting during the civil war. Local militias fought on the side of government troops against a rebel insurgency from the North.
UNHCR says both Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters are among the refugees.
UNICEF’s Crowley said refugees say they fled because they felt threatened, either by the possibility of a rebel attack or because of intimidation by security forces.
She says men often stay behind to look after the property, so the refugees are mainly women and children. Some children are in the care of an older sibling, while UNICEF has encountered others, as young as three years old, who have been abandoned or walked on their own.
“The refugees are coming in and they obviously have nothing with them, so the urgent needs for children right now are shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation, food and nutrition and safe living spaces, places where they can play and where we can give some sense of normalcy,” said Crowley.
Crowley said many refugees have often walked for days and arrive very hungry and in need of shelter.
Crowley said many have been taken in by Liberian families, most of whom are already very poor. They are dispersed throughout 22 villages in eastern Liberia’s Nimba region, which Crowley said presents a hefty challenge for aid workers.
“When you’re talking about 22 settlements on a very, very bad road, it is very difficult to access all of the children,” she said.
Crowley said the United Nations has been working with the Liberian government, and they are considering the possibility of setting up a camp.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says it is currently distributing emergency aid, but local communities are being stretched to the limit, homes are overcrowded, and supplies are running out.
UNICEF has also noted cases of malaria and diarrhea and is vaccinating refugees against polio, measles and yellow fever to prevent disease outbreaks.
UNICEF is calling for $4 million in funding, which Crowley said would meet the needs of 50,000 refugees for a three month period.