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The Situation of Sierra Leonean Refugees in the Republic of Guinea


Refugee Protection

I was arrested two days ago by a police officer while I was walking along the road for not having an identification card. I had the piece of paper saying I’m a refugee from Sierra Leone, my auto-collant and my fixing token,68 but he said I need an ID card. He said if I didn’t pay him he was going to take me to the jail. He said if I pay FG5,000, I can get a small receipt and go by. I produced FG1,000 to get released and came straight back to the camp fast. And he didn’t give me any receipt.69

There are more women than men here. Women have children to take care of and no husbands. There is little money and no one to help with the family. Many women tell us that men tell them, “I’ll help you if you sleep with me.” This is practiced widely in all the camps. Many women agree because they are in need. It is against their real will, but they don’t want to starve.72

Situation for Sierra Leonean Refugees in Liberia

Separation of Ex-combatants from Civilian Refugees

Assistance and Protection in Vahun

Kolahun Camp

53 According to UNHCR, there are approximately 255,000 new Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia, over 185,000 of whom arrived in Guinea since August 1997. They joined 121,000 Sierra Leoneans already in Guinea as of June 1997. An additional 128,000 Liberian refugees are also in Guinea.

54 Many of the refugees spontaneously settled in Guinea in areas abandoned by refugees from previous years and in new areas. Other refugee sites were planned by UNHCR, creating more traditional camp settings for larger numbers of people. Regardless of size, shape or history of formation, in the field the settlements are referred to by UNHCR, aid agencies, Guinean authorities and refugees alike as “camps.” For the purposes of this report, the term camps will therefore be used to describe all refugee settlements. All of the camps are named after the local villages they are attached to, or are near to. In many cases, the camps are much larger than their namesakes. None of the camps are enclosed or are guarded by the Guinean military, although the border region of Guéckedou has been increasingly militarized with the increase in conflict across the border. Many military checkpoints have been established along the roads in the area. If security issues arise within the camp, they are currently dealt with by refugee camp committee authorities, who may consult with UNHCR and may refer issues to the Guinean police.

55 Sierra Leonean refugees and members of the local Guinean population do mix. Although the refugees’ movement is restricted, trading does occur and the refugees sell their labor, food obtained from UNHCR, wood, kerosene and other items to nationals. They also trade their rations for a variety of other items, such as salt or rice. This interaction is made easier by similarities in the tribal languages and heritage of the groups, and many share family relationships.

56 Health services for refugees are provided through Guinea’s health authority—Le Département Publique de la Santé (DPS). Refugees can report to often overcrowded and sometimes distant health posts where they can receive treatment for minor ailments and/or referrals to hospitals. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, hospitals were overflowing and lacked adequate medical supplies, including medicines, and had limited surgical capacity.

57 UNHCR contracts local and international nongovernmental organizations to provide food, shelter, water, health, educational, counseling, and other services to refugees. UNHCR also works with Guinean authorities, particularly in the areas of refugee security and protection and health.

58 The principal problems that refugees reported to Human Rights Watch include lack of food, medical care, shelter and the provision of non-food items. The distribution of corn meal as the main food item for refugees poses a problem for many. The staple food in Sierra Leone is rice, and refugees have difficulty preparing and digesting the corn meal. Intermittent and delayed deliveries of food have left many hungry and struggling to find sustenance. Longer-term assistance challenges include the need for adequate programs to address the psychological and social needs of survivors of trauma and sexual violence. Culturally appropriate counseling and other activities, particularly for single women, single mothers, and children should be a priority. Women alone also face ongoing self-sufficiency problems, and programs for these women with real income-generating potential are needed.

59 At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the arrival of a UNHCR Emergency Response team to Guéckedou in late April, along with weekly interagency coordination meetings and additional support from the international community, had gone a long way to improving the situation.

60 Although the covenant stipulates that developing countries "with due regard to human rights and their national economy" may determine to what extent they guarantee these rights to non-nationals, the Refugee Convention requires that refugees be accorded treatment in these areas not less favorable than that accorded to nationals. (Refugee Convention, Article23 relating to public relief and assistance. Guinea is also a party to this treaty.). Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which all states are deemed to accept and adhere by virtue of their membership in the United Nations, explicitly guarantees the right to food, clothing, housing and medical care to "everyone" (Article 25).

61 Article II (6) of the OAU Convention states that “For reasons of security, countries shall as far as possible, settle refugees at a reasonable distance from the frontier of their country of origin.” This has generally been understood to mean a minimum of fifty kilometers from the border.

62 Human Rights Watch interviewed a ten-year-old refugee victim of a bullet wound and observed several wounded Guinean soldiers at Guéckedou Hospital, all casualties from this exchange of fire.

63 Lists of new arrivals are compiled by Guinean officials at the sub-prefecture and prefecture levels and given to UNHCR, which then goes out to the field, identifies, and registers the refugees.

64 Guinean border authorities behaved similarly with Liberian refugees returning to Liberia in 1997.

65 Human Rights Watch interview, Fandouyema II Refugee Camp, Republic of Guinea, June 12, 1998.

66 UNHCR and governments are obliged under international refugee law to deny the benefits of refugee status to persons who would otherwise qualify as refugees if they have committed certain human rights violations. These provisions are commonly referred to as “exclusion clauses.” Article 1(F) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that the Convention “shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering” that: (a) he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes; (b) he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee; (c) he has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. Article 1(5) of the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa contains identical language and excludes from refugee status any person who “has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the Organization of African Unity.”

67 Screening for exclusion should take place after screening for refugee claims, as a person may have a valid fear of persecution but not be deserving of international protection for the reasons described. Efforts should be made, however, to ensure as much as possible that combatants and war criminals are not mixed in with the rest of the refugee population, as is currently the case in refugee camps in Liberia. Those excluded are still entitled to protection under international human rights law. For example, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment provides protection against refoulement to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that a person would be subjected to torture.

68 The auto-collant is a temporary card issued to new Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea to facilitate distribution of supplies, including food. Refugees later receive a temporary card and a “fixing token,” which is also used to identify refugees for distribution. The temporary card is meant ultimately to be replaced with a refugee identification card, but none have been issued. Refugees also receive a copy of their UNHCR registration form, issued by UNHCR, which identifies all of the members of their family.

69 Human Rights Watch interview, Nyeadou Refugee Camp, Guéckedou, Republic of Guinea, June 20, 1998.

70 Certain members of the refugee population have special needs, are deemed “vulnerable” by UNHCR, and receive targeted assistance. “Vulnerable” populations include such groups as unaccompanied minors; single female heads of household; victims of torture; sexually abused; chronically ill; handicapped; mentally disturbed; blind; and others.

71 Human Rights Watch also received unconfirmed reports of women and girls entering into prostitution in Guinean cities and villages in order to survive.

72 Human Rights Watch interview, Nyeadou Refugee Camp, Republic of Guinea, June 20, 1998.

73 These statistics were provided by UNHCR field staff in Liberia. Other estimates varied.

74 The border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, like many in the region, is poorly controlled and subject to much traffic, both legal commerce and illegal crossings. Members of the Mende ethnic group live on both sides of the border, resulting in additional cross-border ties and regular movement between families.

75 Human Rights Watch interview, Vahun, Liberia, June 14, 1998.

76 Human Rights Watch interview, Vahun, Liberia, June 14, 1998.

77 The reference is to Rwandan refugee camps in eastern Zaire, near the border town Goma. The international community was widely criticized for allowing camps in this area to be set up too close to the border with Rwanda and for not taking steps to separate out armed elements and those responsible for the genocide from civilian refugees. This allowed for aid to benefit combatants and war criminals, and exacerbated insecurity in the region._

78 Human Rights Watch interview, Vahun, Liberia, June 13, 1998.

79 Human Rights Watch interview, Vahun, Liberia, June 14, 1998.

80 Deteriorating road conditions due to heavy rain are likely to cut off road access to the Vahun and Kolahun camps and also to camps in Guinea.

81 According to statistics from UNHCR field office, Vahun, Liberia, June 13, 1998.

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