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close this bookMedical Assistance to Self-settled Refugees (Tropical Institute Antwerp, 1998)
close this folder3. The refugee-crisis: between self-reliance and pragmatic assistance
close this folderLate arrivals: the subsequent minor waves, 1992-95
View the documentCross-border movements in both directions
View the documentEarly versus late arrivals
View the documentNew agencies and changes in PARLS

Cross-border movements in both directions

Towards the end of 1992, there was still no progress in the peace process in Liberia. Internal strife within NPFL and ULIMO resulted in their further splitting up in different factions and new upsurges of fighting between them. In September 1994, this culminated in a ULIMO assault on the headquarters of NPFL in Gbarnga, and its subsequent recapture by NPFL, followed by a major offensive of NPFL in ULIMO-controlled territory. In Sierra Leone, the situation was hardly any better. The conflict spread over large areas, and forced many people to leave their homes, and either concentrate around cities, or flee to Guinea.

During this period, the level of violence was increasing, giving rise to some of the most horrifying human rights violations documented in recent history,4,11 during which, for example, whole groups of peasant women had both hands cut off.5,12 All factions widely practised a scorched earth strategy. This disrupted food security inside Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the same time, humanitarian agencies faced serious difficulties bringing relief and there were places with real famine.

The refugees who had arrived in Guinea in 1990-91 fared relatively well. There were no 'lacrimogenic' situations of extreme destitution nor famine. Whenever the situation allowed, refugees returned to their country of origin - temporarily or permanently. When the security situation improved, the movement went mainly towards the country of origin. When insecurity increased, it was the other way round. The feeling was that 'refugees were integrated'. There was little media presence and donors became less interested in these refugees. Moreover, lack of reliable refugee registration and fraud with food aid were perceived as major problems. Therefore, donors were pushing UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) to improve control mechanisms and to reduce food aid.

A SERIES OF MINOR WAVES. As the situation inside Liberia and Sierra Leone deteriorated, new refugees started trickling into Guinea.* The pattern was different from the previous waves of refugees. Now refugees arrived in smaller groups, as a series of minor waves. For those arriving at this late moment, fleeing to Guinea was not a first choice. They had tried to hang on as long as possible. When asked why they had not left their country earlier, they often answered that they lived far from the border, and first had tried to cope somewhere closer to home; that they had never been to and did not know anybody in Guinea, or that they did not know where to go in Guinea. Others stressed that fleeing outside the country would jeopardise their future inside their home country once the problems would be solved. The result was that they first tried to continue living in their villages, facing hardship, or moved around inside Liberia or Sierra Leone. It was only when these options became really impossible that they decided to flee to Guinea.

[* This document is focusing on refugee movements across international borders, but for the people involved in this conflict, these borders constituted only part of the picture. Each time one of the factions gained or lost control over a territory, the areas where people could reside in relative security changed. Invariably this resulted in within-country population movements.]

Most refugees arriving in 1992-95 had thus already been internally displaced. Some had moved several times. Most had suffered extreme hardship, close to forced labour or even slavery, inside their country. Consequently, more and more refugees were malnourished and sick upon arrival, without belongings, or even clothing. Family units were often split, with many families headed by women. Many of the refugees had no place to go to in Guinea, were exhausted on arrival and had little energy left to develop creative coping mechanisms. This fundamental difference between early and late arrivals is a clear illustration of Kunz' variety of 'refugee waves and vintages',13,14 and has also been documented in South Sudan15 and in East Sudan.16,17

One can distinguish more than ten different waves with some 150,000 new refugees during 1992-95 (Figure 6). Most arrived in the prefectures of Yomou, Macenta and Guu, which already hosted the highest number of refugees. When the conflict spread over larger areas of Sierra Leone in 1995, refugees also arrived in new areas in Guinea; some 9,000 refugees settled in Kissidougou and another 24,000 settled in Forriah, along the coast. The most important of these minor waves were those in Guu (June 1993), in Yomou (September 1994) and in Forriah (January 1995). These illustrate the changing nature of the refugee population, as well as the changing response of the relief system (Table 9).

New refugees in Guu, June 1993

In June 1993, several groups of refugees arrived in Guu prefecture and settled down just across the border. They were in a bad shape, destitute and without any belongings. Soon after arrival, they received emergency food and medical care. UNHCR established several small camps, for between 1,000 and 3,000 people each, far away from the border (e.g. at Nyaedou, Fandouyema and Boodou*). UNHCR negotiated access to land for the refugees in Nyaedou and Boodou and assisted them with its exploitation. UNHCR made settlement in the new camps a condition for registration and further assistance. Despite this, many refugees preferred self-settlement without assistance, joining the ranks of previous refugees among who they judged having better chances of coping. Moreover, many refugees who officially registered in camps did not permanently reside there, but moved out in search of employment.

[* Boodou camp was created to settle former guerrilla fighters turned refugees, far from the border and isolated from the rest of the refugees, who were often hostile against them. Later, also 'civilian' refugees were settled in Boodou.]

From Gbarnga to Noonah, Yomou, September - December 1994

After the assault by ULIMO on the headquarters of NPFL at Gbarnga, some 27,000 new refugees arrived in Yomou prefecture in September 1994. Many, including adults, were severely malnourished. They constituted a very diverse group of former urban dwellers from different ethnic groups. At short notice, UNHCR and WFP made emergency food supplies available and constructed transit camps in DieckBignamou and Betha. These transit camps consisted of communal shelters of 15 by 7 metres to house up to 200 persons each, and were designed to be temporary. It was difficult to maintain an acceptable level of hygiene in such environment and soon a severe cholera epidemic broke out in the Dieckransit camp.

In November 1994, UNHCR tried to find a more suitable solution and designed a new camp in Noonah. A typical grid camp was laid out and men from the transit camps were moved by trucks to Noonah to clear the bush and to construct houses with local materials and plastic sheeting. The new camp remained almost empty until UNHCR made living there a precondition for registration. Nevertheless, many refugees refused to move (Box 1). This opting out from the relief system has also been observed in other refugee situations.15

From Kambia to Forriah, January 1995

In January 1995, an attack by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) on Kambia forced some 24,000 Sierra Leoneans to flee to Forriah, near Conakry. Although most of the refugees were in good health, few carried any provisions. The refugees settled in areas inhabited by their kinsmen, with whom they had maintained close relations. This influx closely resembled the first and third waves of 1990, with rural refugees in good health and coping relatively well.

In June 1995 UNHCR encouraged these refugees in Forriah to move to camps. The refugees were told that food and medical assistance would only be provided there. By November 1995, most refugees had moved, although they had previously lived among the Guineans without major problems. This policy was thus in line with the more interventionist relief approach in the Forest Region, although the needs of these refugees did not require it.

Table 7: Overview of three minor waves of late arrivals, 1992-95

Provoking event

Estimated number and/or status at arrival

Settlement area in Guinea and mode of settling in

New refugees in Guu, June 1993

Fighting in Kailahun area (Sierra Leone) & Loffa county (Liberia)

In very poor condition, with many malnourished

Arrived in border areas of Guu; soon moved by UNHCR to small camps (e.g. Nyaedou and Fandouyema) with good access to land

From Gbarnga to Noonah, Yomou, September-December 1994

Attack by ULIMO on NPFL headquarters at Gbarnga

27,000 refugees, generally in poor condition

First in transit camps: DieckBignamou and Betha (Yomou); in January 1995, moved by UNHCR to Noonah with poor access to land (only some 8,000 accepted, rest self-settled, but unassisted)

From Kambia to Forriah, January 1995

Attack on Kambia by RUF

24,000 refugees, in good health

Forriah, self-settlement among kinsmen, later 'encouraged' by UNHCR to move to camps