3500 Liberian Refugees abandoned by UNHCR and Ghana Government.
One of the first things that caught my eye after entering the Buduburam Refugee Camp were the fully loaded trucks transporting the belongings of Liberian refugees for whom the camp was the only home for the past 20 years. It was June, 2012 and the process of repatriation was under way. On the square laid wooden tables turned upside down were packed bags containing families’ entire possessions. Although the refugees’ return home approached inevitably, I sensed no atmosphere of happiness. Instead, tension and doubt filled the air. I saw many Liberians sitting alone on benches observing the movement on the little square. Their faces showed no emotions, and their eyes were empty.
After many years of living in the camp the refugees desire to come back home. Finally, improved political situation in Liberia could make their wish come true. The UNHCR announced in April 2012 to invoke a cessation clause which means that Liberians are going to lose their refugee status in June 2012, and can finally leave Ghana. However, this option was available only for those refugees who had special “ID Cards”. They were issued in 2003 by UNHCR during the only registration process in 20 years of Buduburam Camp’s existence.
This card is simultaneously a “ticket” to Liberia connected with a financial grant of 300$ per person to start a new life in his/her homeland. This is an amount of money refugees are not able to put aside. Therefore, the ownership of the ID card is a bit like Russian roulette: those who have them are free; those that do not have no clue what will happen to them or their families the next day.
The UNHCR has provided no explanation regarding the situation. Around June last year the refugees created a list which was signed by 3500 refugees who did not possess the ID card. This list was presented in the UNHCR office at the Buduburam Camp and rejected by the officers with the explanation that they cannot do anything to change the situation. However, these people still live in the camp as they have nowhere else to go.
“There is a level of “uncomfortable situations” at the camp”
It is Mai 2013. Almost a year has gone by since my last visit to the Buduburam Refugee Camp and it is slowly being overtaken by Ghanaians as the land is the property of one of Accra’s districts. The situation is escalating day by day.
“The camp has turned into a place of violence and crimes. All the refugees are witnessing violence from local Ghanaians including rape, defilement, threat, and brutality. Just a week ago, some evil Ghanaians who call themselves “HAWUSA BOYS” stabbed some refugees. UNHCR is hardly present in the camp. It can only be seen for a few hours while processing refugees to return to Liberia. “Refugees are waiting in frustration, since nothing has been said about them yet”, said Keith Kortu, a former Liberian refugee in Ghana, who lived and worked as social worker at the Buduburam Camp since 1992.
Keith was involved in a defilement case as he exposed a perpetrator who sexually abused a 15-year-old girl living in the ‘Heartwool Africa Project Orphanage’ at the Buduburam Camp. The victim was rescued by a Ghanaian NGO Enslavement Prevention Alliance West-Africa and referred into the care of WISE Center shelter, as well as provided with psychological support. But Keith’s decision to report the case to the police had tragic consequences for him and his family.
“My family and I have been threatened by a group of people who were involved in a defilement case. I knew that their desire for revenge was serious. Even during our escape from the camp our car was chased and stoned by the Liberians who consider me traitor. I was forced to seek refuge at the NGO’s WISE Center office in Accra” (Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment)
Keith is a father of three girls and three adopted boys whose mother died during the war. They sleep on one little mattress in the WISE’s office where they have to wake up very early before it opens. Since they live in Accra, Keith has serious financial trouble as he does not have a work permit and cannot find employment. As a result, his children had to take a break from school, as Keith is unable to fund it.
Because I received documents and pictures confirming murder and sexual abuse, I called Ghana Refugee Board and National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO) currently managing the camp asking for a statement concerning both cases. A NADMO manager informed me: “Situation in the camp is good. There is order like it has always been. Sometimes little conflicts occur, but there can be no talk of cases like rape or murder”. Paddy Tetteh, representing Ghana Refugee Board, admitted that: “there is a level of uncomfortable situations at the camp (…) but no case of murder or rape had been reported.”
Life in the Buduburam Camp for the former refugees was challenging. They had to pay for fresh water and the use of bathrooms as their houses were not equipped with toilets or sinks.
Despite the shortcomings they considered the camp their home and put a lot of effort in upgrading it. For the 3500 Liberians, who lost their refugee status in April 2012, this place turned into a foreign land with no option to leave with nowhere else to go.
Neither UNHCR nor Ghana Refugee Board provided an explanation of why the refugees were only registered once in 2003 and never since. Tetteh had admitted the existence of 3500 Liberians without ID cards and said that: “There is no financial possibility to send these people back home”. Folley, Assistant Public Information Officer of UNHCR in Ghana stated that: “Following the Refugee registration in 2003, there were two additional verification exercises (in 2009 and 2010). There was another registration (…) in 2012 (…) conducted to record the decisions of the refugees on the available options (voluntary repatriation or local integration)”. Nonetheless, this information does not correlate with the one clearly described in UNHCR/ World Food Program’s (WFP) document: “Joint Assessment Mission (JAM) Ghana: Buduburam and Krisan camps. Final report” from July, 2006.
“In 2003, a comprehensive registration exercise was conducted for all the refugees in Buduburam. The registration procedure established that over 42 000 refugees were living there. The refugees who arrived after October 2003 were not recognized by the government, do not have refugee cards and are not directly assisted by UNHCR/WFP. According to the Welfare Council of the Buduburam camp, a total of 12 – 13,000 nonregistered refugees are present in the camp.”
Moreover, two additional registration exercises and another in 2012 were organized only for those refugees who had been already registered in 2003. This is also confirmed in the same document issued by UHNCR/WFP: “Nevertheless, refugees may have travelled onwards to Liberia or other countries, or moved to Accra and other places, without notifying UNHCR. Therefore, the 38 000 [registered refugees] estimate is in need of being verified (…). The JAM (Joint Assessment Mission) recommends carrying out a verification exercise, latest in January next year.”
The difficulty of answering the question of who is responsible for the fate of the nonregistered refugees is described by Katie Flannery and Shikha Bhattacharjee (law students at the Transnational Legal Clinic, University of Pennsylvania Law School). They are writing a human rights report on protracted refugee situations that uses the Liberian experience on Buduburam as a case study.
“The Liberian refugees’ experience at Buduburam is one stark example of the difficulty that the international community has in protecting and supporting refugees in prolonged refugee situations. Although prolonged refugee situations are emerging as the “new norm,” UNHCR have not adapted their institutional mechanisms to respond to the needs of populations living in camps medium to long term. The resulting situations lead to systemic violations of the human rights of refugees under international law.”
20 years of life in an open camp without a way back
During the years refugees built the entire camp with the use of all the available resources.
They turned it into a small and colorful town, which filled up very fast with street stores, bars and barber shops. Today the moving process has begun. Refugees with ID cards have left and the majority of houses have been deserted. While passing them I was visiting a town that left in a hurry. There were still children playing on the streets and women hanging out the laundry. Sometimes I met someone carrying his bags to the UNCHR trucks.
“We now fear deportation. We spent all these years in a foreign country without any perspectives for future, now we just want go to home with dignity. We have no accommodation and no food. This is a cry for help”, said Keith.
It is unclear why the Ghanaian Government did not recognize those refugees who arrived after 2003 or why UNHCR conducted only one registration of the Liberian refugees living in the Buduburam Refugee Camp. Unfortunately, the victims of bureaucratic and organizational mistakes are “as usual” innocent people. Once again they are waiting for any information explaining their future circumstances. Once again they have nothing except promises from the authorities that everything will change for them “soon”.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. All photographs and text are property of Natalia Ojewska.
Natalia Ojewska is a freelance writer covering international stories that matter. She is a young, ambitious journalist writer, particularly interested in covering stories from countries developing their stability after national and international political or military conflicts. It is the social aspect of any given story that drives her to present it in the most transparent way and let the World know about it. Natalia earned her (BA) Communication Science degree from the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany in 2010. Since graduation, she has proactively gained journalist work experience in diverse media outlets in Germany and Africa including: Radio M 94,5, Focus TV, Focus Online, Janus TV, ProSieben and Hanns Seidel Foundation. View her portfolio at http://nataliaojewska.com.