Refugees from Côte d’Ivoire crisis could top 100,000 by April, UN warns

Refugees from Côte d’Ivoire, like this group, continue to cross the border into Liberia

31 January 2011 – As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon kept up his diplomatic push for a speedy solution to the post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, United Nations agencies called for urgent funding today, warning that refugees fleeing to neighbouring Liberia could top 100,000 by the end of April.

Mr. Ban met today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with President Goodluck Jonathon of Nigeria, who has played a major role in trying to solve the crisis resulting from former president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office despite his UN-certified defeat by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

The Secretary-General has repeatedly called on Mr. Gbagbo to step down. In his talks with Mr. Jonathon, he stressed the need for an early solution to the impasse consistent with the will of the Ivorian people as expressed in the November presidential run-off election, which was meant to be a culminating point in reunifying a country split by civil war in 2002 into a Government-controlled south and a rebel-held north.

The resulting turmoil, much of it involving Gbagbo loyalist forces attacking civilians and UN convoys in Abidjan, the commercial capital, as well as ethnic strife in the west of the country, has displaced tens of thousands of people, with 32,000 fleeing to Liberia as of the end of last week.

“UN agencies have voiced concerns that if the current trends in refugee influx continue, by mid-February there could be as many as 50,000 refugees in Liberia and 100,000 by the end of April,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest update on the situation today, stressing the urgent need to repair roads due to the upcoming rainy season in April, which will restrict access to many of the 32 Liberian villages hosting refugees.

“Maintaining the ability to provide assistance before and during the rainy season will be a significant challenge for the humanitarian community if resources are not urgently provided.”

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Liberia National Red Cross Society are currently providing safe drinking water and sanitation services in several communities.

At least 20,000 other Ivorians have been internally displaced in western Côte d’Ivoire, where UN officials have warned that ethnic tensions stemming from national, racial and religious affiliation linked to the opposing camps could lead to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

On 18 January, UN agencies and partners launched an $87.7 million appeal for aid in Côte d’Ivoire and five neighbouring countries to face a potential major humanitarian crisis.

“In light of the increasing number of displaced persons and refugees, limited access to health care in several regions as well as the upcoming rainy season which will affect delivery, humanitarian organizations urgently need funding,” OCHA said.

The Ministry of Health, backed by UNICEF and the UN World Health Organization (WHO), has started an emergency vaccination campaign targeting over 840,000 people aged nine months and older in response to an outbreak of yellow fever.

A cholera epidemic has also been declared in Abidjan municipality, with local health authorities, supported by WHO and UNICEF, mounting a rapid response. UNICEF has so far distributed 250,000 bars of soap, chlorine and 3,000 information posters to fight the diarrhoeal disease which is spread by contaminated water and food. Hand washing is considered an important preventive step.

On the political front, the African Union (AU) has set up a panel to look into the crisis and come up with a solution in a month’s time, but Mr. Ban has made clear that Mr. Ouattara is the clear winner of the elections.

“The will of the Ivorian people has already been clearly stated through the election,” he told a news conference yesterday in Addis Ababa, where he is attending the AU’s annual summit. “It is important for Mr. Gbagbo to fully reflect the genuine will of the Ivorian people. The longer it lasts, the more serious problems will be for the people. Millions of people are suffering from this situation…

“Mr. Gbagbo first of all should clearly listen to the wishes and decision of the international community and transfer the power to his successor, Mr. Ouattara, who was legitimately elected.”

Mr. Gbagbo has demanded the withdrawal of the nearly 9,000-strong UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), which has been supporting the stabilization and reunification efforts over the past seven years. The UN has categorically rejected the demand and reinforced the mission with 2,000 more troops and three armed helicopters.

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