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'We want to go,' desperate refugees tell UN agency chief in Côte d'Ivoire

'We want to go,' desperate refugees tell UN agency chief in Côte d'Ivoire

On the first leg of his mission to West Africa, the head of the United Nations refugee agency met with top leaders of strife-torn Côte d'Ivoire, and visited thousands of desperate Liberians stranded at a refugee camp.

Rudd Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), met today with President Laurent Gbagbo, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and other senior officials to discuss the fate of refugees caught in the country's eight-month-old conflict. He stressed the agency's ongoing and serious concern about the estimated 9,000 Liberian refugees in Nicla camp, in the country's volatile west.

The High Commissioner noted that Côte d'Ivoire had a long tradition of hospitality towards refugees, but that since last September's attempted coup, hospitality has worn thin. He repeatedly told those he met that Liberians have been victimized twice, first in their own country and then again when public sentiment turned against them in Côte d'Ivoire.

Later today, Mr. Lubbers was scheduled to launch a public awareness campaign designed to ease animosity between the local population and refugees. The campaign, which is backed by Ivoirian religious leaders and local personalities, includes CDs with two songs written by prominent Ivoirian artists, as well as radio and TV spots, and a TV soap opera.

Yesterday, when Mr. Lubbers visited Nicla camp, he was greeted by hundreds of children chanting: "We want to go, we are not dead." His meetings with various refugee groups revealed fears about the militarization of the camp, the recruitment of young people as fighters, prostitution and a raft of other serious social problems. Representatives of all the groups expressed concern about general insecurity in the area and the desire to be moved elsewhere.

Mr. Lubbers told Nicla's refugee representatives that UNHCR was working on three different ways to help them - through relocation to a safer area within Côte d'Ivoire, resettlement in third countries, and repatriation to Liberia. He said he understood the refugees' fear and fatigue, assuring them that UNHCR would do all it could to end their ordeal, but cautioned that none of the possible solutions would be easy.

"We as UNHCR will be with you to bring your ordeal to an end," he said, adding that UNHCR will also try to explore other options with the international community, but warned that not everybody would be able to go to another country. He stressed that stability in Liberia was crucial for possible repatriation, while resettlement in third countries required an agreement by those countries to accept some of Nicla's refugees.

As part of his eight-day, five-nation mission to West Africa, Mr. Lubbers will travel from Côte d'Ivoire to Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. He is scheduled to meet with senior government officials, UNHCR staff and field partners at each stop.