By Paul Ndiho, Washington DC
March 30, 2011
Tens of thousands of Ivorians continue to flee to Liberia. The United Nations estimates that nearly 1 million people in Ivory Coast have left the country because of the fighting there.
The mass exodus of refugees from Ivory Coast is straining food supplies and resources in Liberia. An estimated 1 million people have fled the capital Abidjan and neighboring towns. Aid agencies say more than 90,000 people have crossed into Liberia.
The crisis comes as the world’s gaze has been fixed on uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and international appeals for urgent aid have gone largely unanswered. Chaloka Beyani is a Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, and the U.N.’s Special Rapportuer on the human rights of internally displaced persons.
“The magnitude of displacement is huge and i think that picture is changing almost on a daily basis but the estimates indicate that at least you have around 400 thousand people displaced with the country and a lot more outside the country. The partner of displacement seems to be urban based at the moment and so far UNHCR have presence in the country in an attempt to provide assistance to those who need it as a result of displacement.”
November’s disputed presidential election in Ivory Coast has pushed the country to the brink of a new civil war, with Laurent Gbagbo rejecting results showing rival Alassane Ouattara won.
Hundreds have already died in street clashes between the two sides. An outbreak of fighting in western Ivory Coast between pro-Gbagbo forces and rebels who back Mr. Ouattara has contributed to a huge spike in people fleeing over the border.
“I was on my way to school with my friend. We were walking and the shooting began. We fled. We left our guardian at home, my friend’s mother. We could not go back, so we fled into the bush. We then fled towards the border and we slept in the bush.”
Despite the best efforts of humanitarian agencies, the rapid movement of people has put a huge strain on sanitation and water and the situation has been declared critical in some places.
“This mass displacement in Abidjan and elsewhere is fueled by fears of all-out war. This week we have panic in Abidjan as thousands of youth have responded to calls to civilians to join the ranks of forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf warns the crisis risks destabilizing the West African region. She says Ivory Coast is “already at war” and calls on the international community to take greater action to stop the violence from spreading to neighboring countries.
Conflicts triggering huge movements of refugees in the region have occurred before, as happened during Liberia’s civil war of 1989-2003. But most observers thought late last year that Ivory Coast was less of a concern than Guinea, which ultimately managed to make it through a similar tense election period.