Cover Image
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 folderSettlement patterns of refugees
View the documentThe number and distribution of refugees*
View the document'Integration' of urban refugees
View the documentRural refugees: between 'integration' and 'segregation'
View the document'Refugees live in camps'

The number and distribution of refugees*

[* All population data should be treated with caution, as they are quite unreliable.]

UNHCR made a distinction between refugees registered in 1990-93 and those registered in 1994-95, the former being identified as the 'old' refugees, the latter as the 'new' refugees. This distinction did not coincide entirely with the distinction between early arrivals (1990-91) and late arrivals (1992-95). Old and new refugees were entitled to different quantities of food, the assumption being that the old refugees were self-sufficient by 1996, but that new refugees were not. This distinction was maintained despite studies showing that food insecurity was not linked to time of arrival but to area of residence.18

Figure 14: The concentration of refugees, Forest Region, mid-1995


Guinean population

Refugee population

Ratio refugees/Guineans

























Total Region




The concentration of refugees was different from one prefecture to another (Figure 14). In Guu in mid-1995, there were more refugees than Guineans. The concentrations were also very high in Yomou and Macenta. Within the prefectures refugee concentrations also varied. This variation is shown for Guu prefecture.

The Mano, KpellLoma and Kissi refugees lived mainly in the rural areas among their kinsmen. The Mandingo lived mostly in the cities. The Mende and Gbande who had no kinsmen in Guinea settled in the south-west of Guu where refugee concentrations were highest (Figure 14). The place where refugees settled was determined mainly by ethnic origin and established cross-border contacts, and by their rural or urban origin.

'Integration' of urban refugees

One third of the refugees, mainly Mandingo, settled in the major urban centres: N'ZkorGuu and Macenta. The Mandingo, whether 'refugees', 'returnees' or 'citizens', dominated trade in the cities. Their arrival from Liberia transformed the cities of the Forest Region. Since 1990, the number of cars in the cities at least tripled or quadrupled. The refugees brought many of these cars, but often had to sell them when their resource basis dwindled.

These refugees were integrated in the economic life of the cities. The sudden increase of Mandingo further marginalised the forest tribes - Mano, KpellLoma and Kissi - economically. It also exacerbated pre-existing ethnic tensions. The forest tribes were loyal to NPFL that had persecuted the Mandingo in Liberia. In June 1991, ethnic tensions between Kpellnd Mandingo escalated in N'Zkornd resulted in clashes which caused some 200 deaths. Also in Macenta, tensions between the Mandingo, locally known as Tomamania, and the Loma increased. Several hundreds of people were killed. At the same time, political liberalisation made the forest tribes more vocal and their domination of certain city councils, namely in N'Zkorstrengthened their political position.

In the cities, there were serious problems with over-registration of refugees. Many merchants and local authorities acquired ration cards, in certain cases for many groups of 50 beneficiaries. The urban Mandingo refugees were the most outspoken and politically aware section of the refugee population. When food distributions became irregular, the urban refugees staged protests at the UNHCR offices. When food aid only trickled in, as was the case throughout 1995, there was political pressure to favour distributions to the urban refugees to avoid tensions in the cities. Most urban refugees managed relatively well, at least economically. Still, they lost a lot through their forced migration to Guinea. Many Mandingo were killed in Liberia, and part of their property was looted or destroyed. Some became destitute, lost their social network and became pauperised urban dwellers.

Rural refugees: between 'integration' and 'segregation'

SETTLEMENT PATTERNS AND SELF-SUFFICIENCY. In the rural areas, different settlement patterns can be distinguished (Figure 15). Many refugees lived within Guinean villages. For an outsider it was very difficult to distinguish them from Guineans. This pattern can be called 'spatial integration'. Other refugees lived in 'paired villages': the refugees created a settlement close to an existing village with which they enjoyed good relations. This can be called 'peaceful cohabitation'. Other refugees lived in 'new villages', situated rather close to an existing village with the possibility of social and economic relations, but with a distinct identity ('spatial separation'). At the extreme of the spectrum, some refugees were living in 'real camps'. Although not intended as such, this situation could be qualified as 'spatial segregation'.*

[* In the particular case of Kouloumba, the camp came into existence due to 'takeover': the concentration of refugees was so high - 26,000 refugees for some 1,000 Guineans - that the local village was almost absorbed in the refugee settlement.]

Figure 15: Settlement pattern and self-sufficiency of the rural refugees, Guinea, 1990-95

RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF THE DIFFERENT SETTLEMENT PATTERNS. Guu was the prefecture with the highest density of refugees, and the highest number of real camps. A detailed analysis of the situation in Guu at the end of 1995 clarified the quantitative importance of the different settlement patterns.

According to the data of the health animators 90,790 (33%) of the 273,388 refugees officially registered in Guu at the end of 1995 were living in 45 'camps'. In the nine largest camps 60,647 refugees were living, 24,434 in Kouloumba camp alone. The remaining 30,143 refugees were registered in 36 camps with a population ranging between 2,788 and 273. However, many of these 'camps' were rather new or paired villages. This means that in Guu prefecture two-thirds of the refugees were not living in camps, but among the local population or in settlements with less than 300 inhabitants. In other prefectures, the proportion of refugees living in camps was even lower.

[ One of the roles of the health animators was to estimate the number of people effectively living ill the refugee settlement in which they worked (as this was often very different from the number of refugees registered there). This was done by visual inspection of the houses. If a house was inhabited or maintained normally, it was considered that all members of the family registered there were effectively residing in it. This was probably a very sensitive criterion.]

Moreover, refugees officially registered in camps were often not residing there, but settled among the Guineans. They returned to the camp when food distributions took place. This phenomenon was especially important during the rainy season, when agricultural labour was in high demand. Camps were then often largely abandoned with only few people present, the remainder having settled on a semi-permanent basis in villages outside the camp. With many houses closed or collapsing, and vegetation growing wildly, these camps were called 'ghost camps'.

One can roughly estimate that less than 20% of the refugees of the Forest Region were living in real camps, some 25% in new or paired villages, and over half were fully integrated in Guinean villages and towns. The degree of homogeneity of the refugees within these different situations varied considerably. 'Spatial integration' and 'peaceful cohabitation' were usually rather homogeneous situations: refugees with close kinship relations to the Guineans settled freely among their kin. 'Spatial separation' and 'spatial segregation' situations were often more heterogeneous, constituted of a mix of different ethnic groups distinct from the host population.

DETERMINANTS OF SETTLEMENT PATTERN. These different settlement patterns resulted from the interaction of factors such as (1) ethnic and kinship relations between the refugees and the ethnically diverse host population; (2) the time of arrival and duration of stay of the refugees in Guinea; (3) the degree of laisser-faire or steering of the situation by UNHCR, and the degree of freedom the refugees had to self-settle; (4) the concentration of refugees and speed of arrival; (5) the pattern of land use and possibilities of access to land for the refugees; and (6) the intensity of social and economic relations between the refugees and the host population (Figure 15).

CONSEQUENCES FOR SELF-SUFFICIENCY. Most rural refugees were farmers. In Guinea, most became landless. The local communities own the land, even if it is not in use. Not only for land, but also for common property resources, such as wood or even thatch for their houses, the refugees needed permission from the Guineans. The refugees depended thus to a large degree on good relations with the host communities. The refugees were often employed on a daily basis by the Guineans to work as agricultural labourers. Others got access to land that normally would have been left fallow. Initially the refugees were allowed to use such land for one year, as an exceptional measure. The Guineans perceived the presence of refugees as a temporary phenomenon. Only few refugees got the permission to clear forest and cultivate new land.

The main untapped economic resource in the Forest Region was, however, its swamps. They were fertile and well suited for lowland rice. Few Guineans, with the exception of the Kissi, ever used them. But, many refugees had experience growing swamp rice in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and some got access to these swamps in Guinea. However, to lay out unused swamps is hard labour. Removing trees, digging canals and constructing dikes is an important investment, which is not worthwhile for one single harvest. Since 1995, UNHCR negotiated with local communities access to unused swamps for the refugees communities. UNHCR paid refugee labour and technical assistance for the initial works, and the local communities allowed refugees to use the land for five years. This approach marked an important shift in perspective for UNHCR, the refugees and the local communities.

The self-sufficiency of the refugees depended thus not only on the agricultural resources available in the area, but also on the access granted by the Guineans. This depended strongly on the settlement pattern (Figure 15). The refugees who could integrate in local communities enjoyed a higher degree of self-sufficiency. Their means of livelihood were intertwined with these of the host community. They shared the lives of the Guineans, worked on their farms and participated fully in the rural subsistence economy. The refugees living in peaceful cohabitation in paired villages or separated in the new villages over time also developed a high degree of economic self-sufficiency. As they settled freely, they usually spread themselves well enough to have access to economic opportunities. Those living segregated in camps faced the most serious problems. Both their density and their isolation from the host society made their economic integration difficult. They often moved out of the camps to live in a more integrated way.

'Refugees live in camps'

Contrary to the diverse realities described above, staff of aid agencies and government bodies tended to speak of 'the refugees' without making any distinction. The name given to a refugee settlement, was invariably the name of a Guinean village with the suffix 'camp'. For example, Noonah is a small Guinean village, and the refugee camp was called Noonah camp. But also in Badou, where one hundred refugees lived in huts on one side of the village, the refugee quarter was called Badou camp. All refugee settlements, paired villages, new villages or real camps were invariably referred to as 'camps'. To some extent this was a way to distinguish the host population from the refugees, but the visibility of the relatively small proportion of refugees living in camps strongly shaped the image aid workers and government officials had of all the refugees. 'Putting all refugees in the same bag' obscured the fact that the coping mechanisms of the refugees and the degree of self-sufficiency achieved differed strongly between refugee communities.

The medical part of PARLS in Guinea concentrated on giving refugees access to health services and control of epidemics in the refugee-affected areas. Also food aid was a major aspect of PARLS, although only the assessment of the nutritional situation was carried out by the medical actors. The following chapters cover medical assistance for refugees. They describe in more detail food aid (Chapter 4), control of epidemics (Chapter 5) and health services for refugees (Chapter 6). Other aspects of PARLS, such as provision of shelter and drinking water, organisation of basic education, and assistance for income-generating activities, will not be covered.