The atrocities and violence described above are unfortunately only the first chapter of hardship for many Sierra Leoneans. Approximately one-quarter million Sierra Leoneans have fled to neighboring Guinea and Liberia in order to escape the abuses and fighting. The continuing conflict in Sierra Leone prevents them from leaving the refugee camps in these countries.

The Situation of Sierra Leonean Refugees in the Republic of Guinea

Since February 1998, the refugee situation in the Republic of Guinea has reached a state of emergency. As the AFRC/RUF attacked and committed atrocities in villages and towns in Sierra Leone's Kono and Kailahun districts, civilians fled by the thousands and crossed the border into Guinea. UNHCR puts the total number of new arrivals since May 1997 at over 200,000.53 The new Sierra Leonean refugees have joined thousands who had fled fighting at earlier points in Sierra Leone's seven-year internal armed conflict.

Refugees poured out of Sierra Leone, sometimes at the rate of 3,000 per day, primarily into Faranah, Guéckedou, Kissidougou, and Macenta prefectures, in the forest area of eastern Guinea known as Guinée Forestière. The largest number of this population are settled in approximately 124 camps, or local settlements,54 in Guéckedou, where refugees now outnumber Guinea nationals.55


The refugees arrive in terrible shape after days, weeks, and sometimes months hiding and walking in the forest with little to eat, little to wear, and no health care. They suffer great trauma and urgently need food, shelter,clothing, and medical attention. From the outset, the crisis placed immense pressure on the Guinean civil and health authorities,56 along with UNHCR and its implementing partners,57 who struggled to respond.

Although UNHCR and its implementing partners in Guéckedou reported to Human Rights Watch that the situation has improved somewhat, the humanitarian response to the refugee emergency was slow and disorganized.58 Humanitarian organizations working with UNHCR to address the crisis cite a lack of resources, particularly trucks for food distribution, and a general lack of emergency preparedness as the main factors contributing to the poor initial response.59 Prolonged exposure to the elements during flight in Sierra Leone and in Guinea, the continuing uneven distribution of food, the lack of medical attention, and insufficient shelter have led to severe health problems, especially in the under-five population, including malnutrition, malaria, acute respiratory afflictions, and diarrhea. Infant mortality is high.

The situation became worse on June 14, 1998 when fighting intensified on the Sierra Leone side of the border with Guéckedou. Ostensibly for security reasons, the government of Guinea on June 15 blocked access to roads leading to approximately fifty refugee camps, housing over 150,000 newly arrived refugees. The lack of access made it impossible to provide adequate services to the refugees and infringed upon UNHCR's ability to provide protection for over four weeks. The refusal by the Guinean government to provide even limited access on a regular basis risked a humanitarian disaster and the possibility of increased insecurity and unrest among the refugee and local populations-a situation no one would have been prepared to adequately address. The World Food Program was finally permitted to deliver a week's worth of rations on July 14, feeding approximately 130,000 refugees.

The closing of access to refugee encampments and consequent blockage of humanitarian supplies can result in a severe violation of the rights to adequate food, clothing and housing, and to medical care. Guinea is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the ICESCR) which guarantees these rights in articles 11 and 12.60

Refugee Protection

Location of the Camps
The most immediately striking refugee protection concern in Guéckedou is the proximity of the refugee camps to the Sierra Leone border. Many of the camps, in particular those that were cut off from humanitarian assistance in June and July, are located in the area of Guéckedou which forms a peninsula-like territory stretching into eastern Sierra Leone. They are extremely close to the border with Sierra Leone; some are as little as three kilometers away.61 A river running along the border forms a natural barrier between Guinea and Sierra Leone, providing minimal protection to refugees who are in gunshot range of the AFRC/RUF soldiers, located just on the other side. Pressure on the border is growing as ECOMOG forces continue to attack AFRC/RUF-held territory in Kono and Kailahun districts, squeezing AFRC/RUF soldiers further north. In addition, the roads leading to many of the camps are extremely treacherous, even for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Once Guinea's June-November rainy season begins, the roads often become impassible.

Although all of the Guinean military and civil authorities Human Rights Watch spoke with rejected the possibility of a cross-border attack by the AFRC/RUF, the risk is clear. AFRC/RUF soldiers are located dangerously close to the border and, on several occasions in mid-June, gunfire was exchanged across the border in the Nongoa village area, resulting in casualties among the Guinean military and small numbers of civilians.62 Refugees from a camp in Nongoa fled the fighting.

Access to Asylum, Screening and Registration
Although Sierra Leonean refugees are granted group-based prima facie refugee status in Guinea,63 and in many respects, Guinea stands out as a generous host nation, obtaining asylum is not without obstacles. Refugees consistently testified to Human Rights Watch that they receive a mixed welcome when they reached the Guinea border. There are no reports of forced return- refoulement- by the Guinean military patrolling the border, but the refugees are routinely subjected to summary searches, and border authorities extort fees and property from them prior to entry into Guinea.64 Sixty-year-old Fea R. from Kuyoh, Kono, and her husband entered Guinea at Bakador afterone month in the forest in Sierra Leone. She remembered: "We met Guinean military at the border, and they were making people pay. The soldiers took the palm oil we were traveling with."65

Refugees, however, also frequently expressed their appreciation for the assistance the Guinean military provided to the most vulnerable arrivals, particularly survivors of gross human rights violations, such as amputations. The soldiers transported refugees in dire need of medical assistance to hospitals in military vehicles or to places of temporary shelter.

UNHCR does not maintain a presence at border crossings, and UNHCR protection officers have rarely monitored the treatment of refugees as they seek to enter Guinea. In part, this is due to the fact that Guinean authorities have in many areas recently barred access to the border, citing security concerns. To ensure the protection of refugees seeking to enter Guinea, UNHCR should work with the government of Guinea to establish a presence at border crossing points to monitor access to asylum.

Detention and Exclusion
Human Rights Watch has received reports that possibly hundreds of suspected AFRC/RUF soldiers trying to enter Guinea have been detained by Guinean military authorities. Unlike the situation in Liberia described below, infiltration of the camps by AFRC/RUF members is not known to have happened to a large extent. Suspected AFRC/RUF members have reportedly turned up in refugee camps in small numbers and have been identified by the refugees and handed over to the Guinean authorities. For example, refugees in Fangamadou told Human Rights Watch that six suspected AFRC/RUF soldiers had been turned over to Guinean authorities, who reportedly detained them and later transferred them to jails in Conakry.

UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have both been barred access to detainees to determine whether or not they actually have bona fide asylum claims and whether they are being treated as candidates for exclusion.66 The government of Guinea has provided no information about the detainees or the procedures and criteria used to screen, detain, and seemingly exclude these persons from protection in Guinea. The Guinean government should give UNHCR unlimited full access to entry points and places of detention of refugees and asylum seekers, including potential exclusion candidates, in order to determine their status and provide assistance and protection where appropriate.

These concerns underline the need for UNHCR to maintain a presence at entry points into Guinea, where protection officers can monitor access to asylum for new arrivals, conduct basic screening to determine group-based,prima facie refugee status and pre-screen those who may be potential exclusion candidates.67 UNHCR should also advise the Guinean government on criteria and procedures for exclusion.

Freedom of Movement
The Guinean government has thus far failed to issue refugee identification cards to the refugees, which has created a number of problems. Without an identification card, the refugees' freedom of movement is constrained, and they risk arrest should they be stopped by Guinean military or police authorities at various checkpoints along the road. Refugees are frequently stopped, threatened with arrest and are pressured to pay what little they have in money or goods for failure to present an identification card.

William S., a refugee from Sierra Leone in Nyeadou Refugee Camp, said:

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

A form of identification which the Guinean authorities do recognize is available for a hefty fee (FG5,000, approximately U.S.$5.00) from the Sierra Leonean Refugee Coordinating Committee. But the price is too high for most. UNHCR is reportedly in continued negotiations with the Guinean government regarding issuance of these cards. The slow process may be an indication of the government's desire to keep the refugee population as separate from the local population as possible.

There have been few reports of crimes being committed in the refugee camps. The only incidents reported to Human Rights Watch involved refugees stealing property, such as tarpaulins, from the houses of "vulnerable"70 refugees during the night. "Vulnerable" populations are still in the process of being identified and situated within the camps. The location and security of these populations in the camps are ongoing concerns, as is assistance to this community.

There have also been no reports of abductions by any party taking place in the camps. Sexual attacks on women in the camps, if occurring, have not been reported. However, women alone, or with children, have been subjected to another form of sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch received reports that fellow male refugees often tell women that they will assist them in the camp only in exchange for sex.71 Volunteer social workers who work with UNHCR to identify, counsel and assist "vulnerable" refugees in Nyeadou Refugee camp said:

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

A number of refugees have been arrested for crimes committed in Guinean villages and cities. Lists of these individuals, their crimes, terms of imprisonment and location have been compiled and made available to UNHCR. UNHCR protection officers have been allowed to visit these refugees, and provide them with one meal per day.

Situation for Sierra Leonean Refugees in Liberia

From February through April 1998, approximately 42,000 Sierra Leoneans fled fighting in the eastern part of the country for Liberia, joining an existing Sierra Leonean refugee population of about 11,000.73 Sierra Leonean civilians have fled on repeated occasions to western Liberia since 1991. Armed rebel groups from both Liberia and Sierra Leone have also moved back and forth across the border on numerous occasions, in order to find refuge, get supplies, such as food, and seek new recruits.74 The refugees face serious security and assistance problems in two main camps in Liberia.

Separation of Ex-combatants from Civilian Refugees

The situation for Sierra Leoneans who fled to Liberia is different in several regards from the conditions in the refugee camps in Guinea. Aside from the smaller numbers of refugees in Liberia, the most striking contrast is the presence of former combatants among the refugee populations in the two main camps in Liberia, located at Vahun and Kolahun in northwestern Liberia. According to witnesses at the border, a large number of AFRC/RUF soldiers, perhaps over 2,000, arrived in Vahun from Sierra Leone during the months of February and March 1998. The fighters reportedly entered without weapons. At least one large group was allegedly escorted from the border at Vahun to the interior of Liberia by members of the Liberian military; some may even be Liberian nationals. Others were integrated into the general refugee or local populations. Refugees and aid workers both report that the combatants have gradually slipped away as time passed; by June 1998, a large number had either moved elsewhere in Liberia, or had returned to Sierra Leone. A significant number, probably at least several hundred, remain in the Kolahun and Vahun camps at the time of this writing.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, and foreign agency staff who, on multiple occasions, had witnessed interaction between Liberian military and members of the AFRC/RUF in the Vahun andKolahun areas. Witnesses concurred that, in general, the interaction appeared to have been friendly, including encounters with one of the key RUF Commanders, Sam Bouckarie, also known as "Mosquito."75

Human Rights Watch also spoke with former combatants in the Vahun camp who stated that members of the AFRC/RUF had come from Sierra Leone into the camps on numerous occasions to encourage them to return to the fighting in Sierra Leone. In addition to recruitment, members of the AFRC/RUF cross the border at unofficial crossing points to sell looted goods from Sierra Leone and to purchase supplies, such as food and clothing.76 The AFRC/RUF conduct their business in broad daylight but in civilian clothing. On June 13, Human Rights Watch observed one group of young men transporting goods on the Vahun-Kolahun road that, according to Liberians from the area, were members of the AFRC/RUF on their way back to Sierra Leone. This type of traffic is apparently frequent, according to refugees and Liberians.

Assistance and Protection in Vahun

The presence of former combatants among the refugee population has hampered humanitarian assistance for refugees, as well as their protection. In February 1998, UNHCR, the World Food Program (WFP), and other humanitarian organizations became aware of former combatants among the refugee population in Vahun. In view of the proximity of the Vahun camp to AFRC/RUF-controlled territory in Sierra Leone, members of the international aid community attempted to develop a plan to assist refugees as well as transfer them to a safe and accessible area in Kolahun. Much debate ensued among the international humanitarian community regarding how to avoid the danger of creating a "Goma-like" situation.77

The proximity of the camp to AFRC/RUF fighters in Sierra Leone and the permeable nature of the border presents a clear security risk for refugees in the Vahun camp. The remote location and vulnerability of the Vahun camp has made it a target in the past: in 1993, armed rebel groups operating in the border area attacked the camp, looted UNHCR facilities, and forced the evacuation of aid workers.

Refugees in the Vahun camp also suffer from abuses by the Liberian military. Upon arrival at the Liberian border, refugees are regularly stripped of their belongings by authorities and subject to beatings if they resist. Refugees claim that Liberian military frequent the camps and openly steal from them, at times in the presence of international aid workers.78 Refugees face the constant risk of theft, rape, or other abuse especially when traveling to fields that they till, nearby markets, or other destinations outside the camps. Refugees and medical workers in Vahun also claim that rape, often by Liberian military, is a serious problem for refugees.

Some members of international agencies and nongovernmental organizations have expressed strong criticism at the disjointed and very slow response to the present precarious situation in Vahun. By June 1998, refugees in Vahun had received only one fourteen-day ration from UNHCR since their arrival (most refugees had arrived in February and March), and no concrete plan to separate combatants from civilian refugees had been put into place by the Liberian authorities or UNHCR. Refugees also complained that mixed signals from UNHCR had left themconfused as to whether they should stay in Vahun or relocate to Kolahun. Human Rights Watch repeatedly heard reports from refugees who said they had been told by UNHCR to build their shelters in Vahun in order to receive tarpaulins and other assistance, only to be told later that they need to move Kolahun in order to receive assistance.

According to medical aid workers, by June 1998 the lack of humanitarian assistance to the Vahun camp had led to a serious decline in the nutritional health of the refugees. The shortage of assistance created enormous tension in the refugee camps. Refugees and aid workers noted that as pressure on the refugee and local populations increased, theft was rising and it was likely that many of the former combatants would return to Sierra Leone to rejoin the fighting, or else resort to banditry in Liberia. Refugees also claimed that they would at times risk crossing back into AFRC/RUF territory across the border in Sierra Leone to search for food. At least one refugee single mother of three had disappeared while seeking palm oil in Sierra Leone; the caretaker of her children claimed that the woman had been abducted by AFRC/RUF while in Sierra Leone.79

Assistance and protection has further been compromised by the onset of the rainy season, and poor road conditions,80 as well as a lack of resources for UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. UNHCR was able to maintain only one field officer at the Vahun camp, home to some 42,000 refugees in June 1998.

Kolahun Camp

Protection, security, and humanitarian conditions in the Kolahun camp, some fifty kilometers from the border, are far better than in the Vahun camp. Some refugees have been hesitant to move to the Kolahun camp, however, due to cultural and family ties with the local Mende population in Vahun. These ties create better opportunities for crop cultivation and small business ventures for those who stay in Vahun. Refugees also explained that they do not want to relocate to Kolahun, first, because of the forbidding prospect of establishing new shelters and fields (already established in Vahun) during the rainy season; second, many are unable to make the three-day journey due to age, illness, or nutritional status; and third, they are receiving unclear messages regarding where and when aid will be delivered. By mid-June 1998, some 10,000 refugees had relocated to Kolahun; while approximately 32,000 remained in Vahun, waiting for clearer signals from UNHCR as to future assistance.81

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 Article 23relating 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).

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is charged with interpreting these economic, social and cultural rights under the ICESCR, has stated in General Comment 3 that a state party which allows any significant number of individuals to be deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, or of basic shelter and housing is "prima facie failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant." Although states parties are required to guarantee only the "progressive" realization of these rights, "[i]f the Covenant were to be read in such a way as not to establish such a minimum core obligation, it would be largely deprived of its raison d'etre." The state must use "all resources that are at its disposition in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations." Such resources would also include proffered humanitarian assistance.

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.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This Web page was created using a Trial Version of Transit Central Station 3.0.