The parallels between the current crisis in Guinea and the situation in Macedonia at the onset of the Kosovo refugee crisis in 1999 are striking. The international response to both situations could not be more different.
Guinea is host to the second largest refugee population in Africa - just under half a million refugees, 330,000 from Sierra Leone, and 126,000 from Liberia. Despite sheltering refugees from the turmoil in these countries for the past decade, it has received little international recognition and even less support for its long record of generous hospitality.
Today Guinea faces a crisis of major proportions. The security situation in the sub-region has deteriorated drastically over the past months. Tensions have risen between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, each accusing the other of supporting rebel activity. A series of cross-border attacks from both Liberia and Sierra Leone between August and October have claimed the lives of hundreds and injured many others. Most of these attacks have occurred close to the Sierra Leonean and Liberian borders, exactly the same areas where the refugee camps are located. The town of Macenta on the Liberian border was attacked on Friday, September 29, claiming 67 lives and forcing both Guineans and refugees to flee the area.
The Guinean government has responded to these attacks by blaming the refugees on its territory. In early August, Guinea closed its borders with Sierra Leone, fearing further incursions by RUF rebels. By mid August as many as 10,000 refugees trying to flee into Guinea to escape RUF atrocities in Sierra Leone were trapped on the Sierra Leonean side of the border - most of them women and children. Conditions on the border were appalling and UNHCR reported that at least one pregnant woman and three children died while waiting to cross into Guinea.
The situation for refugees in Guinea worsened further on September 9 when the President, Lansana Conte, made an inflammatory broadcast in which he blamed refugees for harboring rebels, declared that they should all go home, and rallied the Guinean population to defend their country and round-up all foreigners. These statements incited mob violence against Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees living in and around the capital, Conakry. For several days, armed groups of civilian militias, police and soldiers broke into refugees' homes, beat, raped and arrested them and looted their belongings. Over 5,000 people were detained and hundreds more sought refuge in the Sierra Leonean and Liberian embassies. Most of the refugees detained have since been released, but hundreds remain in the embassies, too afraid to return to their homes. Others have fled Guinea, many of them by boat back to Sierra Leone.
Despite pleas for calm after the September 9 broadcast and assurances by Guinean government officials that Guinea would remain a safe country of asylum for refugees, on October 2 President Conte again blamed the refugees for the security, social and economic problems of his country in a public speech commemorating Guinea's 42nd anniversary of independence.
The situation for refugees in the camps remains extremely critical. There have been reports of armed attacks on some of the refugee camps in the Forecariah region along the Sierra Leonean border, forcing many of the refugees to leave the area. The killing of the head of UNHCR's office and abduction of another staff member in Macenta, on September 17, highlights the dangers for humanitarian workers in the area, as well as for the refugees. The almost whole-scale withdrawal of international staff from the border region, while very understandable in light of the dangerous security situation, has left the refugees unprotected and largely unassisted and renders the camps even more vulnerable to attack with no outside witnesses. At the same time, Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia remain closed to refugees fleeing conflict and human rights violations, and refugees in Guinea are faced with the unenviable choice of remaining unprotected in Guinea, or returning to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The prognosis for Guinea is poor. The chances of more cross-border attacks are high and the possibility of further retaliatory attacks, round-ups and arrests of refugees is very likely, particularly following President Conte's anti-refugee declarations of October 2. The future of safe asylum in Guinea is seriously at risk.
The situation bears strong parallels to Macedonia in April 1999. Like Guinea, Macedonia is a small, relatively poor country in an unstable region with volatile neighbors. Like Guinea, Macedonia feared that the rapid influx of hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovar refugees would severely threaten its national security. And, like Guinea, Macedonia closed its borders to the fleeing refugees with serious humanitarian consequences.
But, the world's media is not congregated in Guinea as it was in Macedonia, nor is the crisis occurring in the midst of the largest NATO offensive ever in Europe. Within days of Macedonia closing its borders western countries began an elaborate program of evacuating refugees. Their rationale was to relieve the pressure and stabilize the situation in Macedonia and thus ensure that the borders were kept open to Kosovar refugees.
Human Rights Watch criticized the disparity in the international response to global refugee emergencies during the Kosovo crisis. We asked whether the international community would be willing to intervene to assist host countries elsewhere in the world in the same way as they had assisted Macedonia, especially when the political and military stakes were not so high. The current situation in Guinea provides our answer. The response of western countries has been negligible, the crisis has hardly touched the world media headlines, and there has certainly been no airlifting of refugees to safety. Yet, the situation in Guinea is as grave, if not graver, than the situation in Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis.
The Guinean government must abide by its international obligations to provide safe asylum and protection to refugees and not to return anyone to a country where their life or freedom could be threatened.
The international community must act now to assist Guinea.
Funding and assistance must be provided:
- to help secure Guinea's borders and protect the refugees,
- to move the refugee camps away from the borders where they are vulnerable to cross-border attacks, and
- to assist with screening the refugees to separate out combatants, in accordance with international standards.
A regional solution must be sought to the crisis. The international community cannot stand back and leave Guinea to cope with this emergency alone.