The Dilemma Liberian refugees
4/28/2012 1:00:57 PM -
When Marie Totaye sought asylum in Ghana as a Liberian refugee with her eight children, it never occurred to her that she would one day have the opportunity to return to her homeland.
But the move to return is posing its own challenges as the leftover of refugees are in dilemma of whether they should go back or reintegrate into the Ghanaian society, as some of them say they have nothing to go back to in Liberia.
The fear of the unknown is driving some of them crazy and they have decided to stay in Ghana. But time is ticking as the deadline for final repatriation approaches. They have up to the end of June to make a final decision about their future- whether to remain in Ghana or repatriated back to their home country.
Toyate has been in Ghana's biggest refugee camp, the Buduburam Camp, for almost a decade. She fled her country during the Liberian civil war that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced thousands of people who later found themselves in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
The Buduburam Camp was the settlement residence for the Liberians that fled to Ghana when the civil war broke in Liberia in 1989. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) provided the refugees with individual aid and relief items.
As the situation in Liberia began to improve with an election in 1997, which saw Charles Taylor become president, the UN judged the elections fair enough to allow for the safe return of its citizens living in neighboring countries as refugees.
But conditions in Liberia worsened again in 1999 when the country entered into a second civil war. About 150,000 people were killed in that conflict. The war ended in 2003 and Liberia had a democratic election two years later, in 2005.
Taylor was later arrested in Nigeria where he was seeking asylum and charged for genocide for aiding warlords in the Sierra Leonean civil war, particularly Foday Sankoh's RUF rebels. On April 26, 2012, the International Criminal Court found Taylor guilty of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. His sentencing hearing will begin May 3. He became the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.
The UNHCR eventually reduced its personal aid efforts for refugees to only unaccompanied minors, the elderly and disabled.
Toyate, now 43 years old, lost her husband and got one of her eyes damaged during the war that has been categorized as one of Africa's bloodiest.
She says although she sometimes feels pain in her head and blood drips from her nostril, she has to make a living by braiding the hair of fellow refugees.
She says living in the camp has become difficult. She gets free medication but needs to renew her National Health Insurance to get further treatment.
The refugees have access to the NHIS under an agreement between the government of Ghana and UNHCR.
She says although the living conditions at the camp are not the best for her and her children, she wishes they could have stayed a little longer for her condition to be treated.
Toyate says she had hoped the pains she feels in her head and the dripping blood from her nostrils will be treated. She was promised an operation to help her regain her sight in her damaged eye but it hasn't happened yet.
She has decided to go back home and has registered with the UNHCR for voluntary repatriation before the end of June 2012, the deadline for the cessation of the refugee status by the UNHCR.
The refugees, under the UN's cessation clause, have the option to choose to either stay and be locally intergraded in their host country, or return to their homeland through voluntary repatriation.
'They killed my husband and I don't have anybody there but I have decided to go home,' says Toyate.
Article 1 of the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees says that a person granted refugee status can no longer continue to be a refugee when the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee has ceased to exist.
Liberia is considered a peaceful country because it has had two consecutive elections. Its citizens living as refugees have the right to return home.
Like Toyate, who will soon be flown back to Liberia, courtesy the United Nations Missions In Liberia (UNMIL), thousands of Liberian refugees have already returned home either with the aid of the UNHCR or on their own.
Roosevelt, another Liberian refugee, expresses indifference at the options. He says although his education in Ghana is delaying his decision to either go or stay, he is not sure he wants to leave after his schooling.
'I know where I am now but I don't know what lies ahead of me. Even if I go back to Liberia I don't want to take any of the options that are for me,' he says.
Refugees in Ghana
Charles Yorke, assistant camp manager at Buduburam, says the camp registered more than 58,000 refugees at the peak of the influx of Liberians into the country.
Tetteh Padi, programmes coordinator at the Ghana Refugee Board, says the board had registered about 35,000 refugees in 2006.
But with the voluntary repatriation exercise, the number has been reduced to 11,000 registered refugees at the camp.
Padi says there are some Liberians and other nationals in Ghana who have not registered with the Refugee Board.
Cessation Of Status
The international community believes that calm has returned to Liberia. 'Two successful democratic elections show how safe the country has become,' says Padi.
Yorke says all the refugees are encouraged to decide to register for voluntary repatriation or opt for local integration.
'If you don't take the decision to decide whether to stay or leave by 30th April, you lose that chance by 30th June. If you haven't approached them [Ghana Refugee Board] about your intention to stay, you also lose that opportunity,' says Padi.
Yorke says the only options available are local integration and repatriation. He says the previous option of resettlement is no longer available because Liberia is seen as a peaceful country.
Awurabena Hutchful, assistant public information officer with the UNHCR in Ghana, says the organization has assisted more than 12,000 people to go back to Liberia since the voluntary repatriation exercises began.
As at the end of March, 2012, the organization had helped 2,800 Liberian refugees return home with the latest repatriation exercise.
But Yorke believes the number should have been higher. He attributes the indecision of majority of the Liberian refugees to either stay or go back home to the uncertainty of what the future holds for them in Liberia after spending so many years in Ghana.
The UNHCR increased the repatriation package from $200 for adult and $100 for children to $300 for adults and $200 for children to encourage them to go home.
Refugees register for repatriation and board a plane to Liberia every Friday and Sunday. The UNHCR can return 60 people on Fridays and 45 on Sundays.
Liberian refugees have complained about a 30kg luggage rule on the airplanes. They say the 30 kg rule is hindering their ability to take their belongings, which would help them start a new life in Liberia.
James Klamah, a Liberian refugee, says many of the people who chose to repatriate have had to sell their belongings because of the weight limit.
But the UNHCR says it has no plans to increase the 30 kg limit.
'By virtue that they travel by air there's going to be a luggage restriction,' says Hutchful. 'Unfortunately that luggage restriction is quite low. We cannot afford at this juncture to change our mode of transportation.'
When they get back to Liberia, they are given $75 as transportation fee to their various home towns and villages.
Padi says the package from the UNHCR is not supposed to settle them when they return to Liberia.
When they return to Liberia, they go to the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and resettlement commission and they will take over.
'Now that cessation is coming, those who would want to integrate are being processed to have Liberian passport so that they stay in Ghana have their work permit, residence permit,' says Yorke.
'But they are Liberians so if they want to become Ghanaians citizens then they will have to go through the procedure established by the Ghana Immigration law to become Ghanaians,' he adds.
Liberians are also concerned that the local integration has not yet been defined by the Ghana government.
Joe Myels, Liberian refugee, says it has been difficult to make a decision without all the information available.
'It is unfortunate that it has taken this long (to define local integration),' says Padi.
'We are working very hard at getting them (answers) because we realize that we are constrained when it comes to time.'
Yorke says the main aim of the exercise is to return the Liberian refugees. It is not to try and give them a local integration package that will make them rescind their decision to go back home.
'But you can't force all of them to go back against their will,' he adds. 'The best solution is to go back home to help rebuild your country, voluntary repatriation is the best.'
Francis Palmdeti, head of public affairs with the Ghana Immigration Service, says those who will not take a decision by the deadline will lose their status and be treated as any foreigner.
'If they are living here we will find out if they have the requisite permits,' he says, adding, 'If they don't, we have options to apply. We may choose to penalize them and have their stay regularized. Or we may choose to repatriate them. Or we can choose to send them to court for a stiffer penalty such as deportation.'
Hutchful says the UNHCR has no means of continuing its assistance to those who wish to stay in Ghana until there is a local integration policy.
'We are hopeful that the Ghana government will provide some resolution to this,' she says.
By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri