Moving quickly to beat the upcoming rainy season and possible instability in an insecure area, the United Nations refugee agency is preparing to transport tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans out of camps in Guinea's volatile "Parrot's Beak" region, a UN spokesman announced today.
Kris Janowski of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said a team from the agency had travelled on Monday to the isolated Parrot's Beak area -- a thumb of Guinean territory jutting into eastern Sierra Leone -- to prepare for the upcoming relocation of tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees to safer camps in the interior of Guinea.
Accompanied by Guinean officials, the team met refugee leaders and told them of "plans for the relocation and of the need to move quickly while security and the weather permit," Mr. Janowski said.
The Parrot's Beak, where an estimated 80,000 refugees remain in a string of settlements and camps, has been cut off by fighting in southwestern Guinea for much of the past seven months. Tens of thousands have already fled to the interior, many of whom left on foot and were later picked up by roving UNHCR patrols, which then transferred them to new camps in the north, according to Mr. Janowski.
Since UNHCR may not have the trucking capacity to transport everyone out of the Parrot's Beak, many refugees may have to walk the first leg of the journey to a transfer site at Katkama. UNHCR will establish aid stations along the way to provide rest, food and medical care to the refugees. Once the transfer is completed, the agency said it would discontinue its assistance to the insecure Parrot's Beak border region.
Mr. Janowski noted that despite warnings from UNHCR and others, "several thousand refugees have also walked back to government-controlled areas in Sierra Leone, passing through dangerous border zones in a desperate attempt to flee tensions in the Parrot's Beak." Some of those reaching Sierra Leone have reported ill treatment by armed groups throughout the journey, he added.