Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations refugee agency to take immediate steps to protect the security of more than 100,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea. It called on the agency to move the refugees who are in camps too close to the border to safer locations inside Guinea, as they are doing for Kosovar refugees in northern Albania.
The refugees, who are fleeing the civil war in Sierra Leone, live in refugee camps close to the border -- some as close as half a mile away. Since March 1999, these camps have frequently come under attack by Sierra Leonean rebels. Dozens of civilians, including Guineans and refugees, have been killed, mutilated, and abducted during these attacks.
"The brutality and the frequency of these attacks is simply atrocious," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Refugee camps are supposed to be a safe haven, but these camps in Guinea are a magnet for attack."
Sierra Leonean refugees in the Tassin refugee camp in the Forecariah area of Guinea came under attack by forces operating from Sierra Leone on May 22. Eleven civilians were killed during the attack. This was the second attack on the Tassin camp and fifth attack targeting refugee camps in the Forecariah area since March of this year. There have also been several attacks on refugee camps in the Gueckedou area, where approximately 350,000 Sierra Leonean refugees live.
In one case, a refugee in the Forecariah area reportedly had his two hands and tongue cut off by the rebels. Human Rights Watch has interviewed several victims of these attacks including a ten-year-old gunshot victim and a woman whose husband was abducted. Attacking forces have also burned down refugees' homes during these raids.
Most attacks have been short raids conducted overnight. Their aim is apparently to abduct refugees, steal supplies, and instill terror.
"It is a long-standing, fundamental principle that refugee camps should not be located close to international borders with a war raging just on the other side," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "These refugees should not have been settled so close to the border in the first place. Their location leaves them completely vulnerable to armed attacks and abduction, and they must be moved immediately."
In June 1998, Human Rights Watch first called on the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to move the refugees, in accordance with international law. Human Rights Watch has also urged UNHCR not to settle new refugees too close to the border, and to ensure that the human rights of the refugees are respected in the moving process.
Fewer than 10,000 of the refugees have been moved to date. The rainy season has already begun in Guinea and, in the very near future, unpaved roads leading to the refugee camps may become impassible, making it extremely difficult to move refugees to safety.
Kosovar refugees in northern Albania face similar risks of being caught in the cross-fire between the parties fighting in Kosovo. Unlike in Guinea, however, UNHCR has taken pains to encourage refugees to move to safer camps in southern Albania. UNHCR has transported approximately 2,000 refugees to southern Albania per day over the past few weeks.
UNHCR requested $4 million to move refugees in Guinea to safety but has yet to receive the entire budget. In Albania, UNHCR has recognized that moving the refugees away from the border with Kosovo is a priority. It has essentially unlimited funds for the move.
"The refugees in Albania certainly deserve the world's help," said Takirambudde "But the refugees in Guinea deserve it no less."