Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees along Guinea's border were relocated from the embattled border area in early 2001 to camps in the interior of the country. While the organized movement from the border is a welcome and long overdue step, the long-term safety of the refugees is still under threat.
The refugees are generally faced with the difficult choice of remaining in Guinea, or returning to Sierra Leone or Liberia, where serious threats to their safety persist. Some refugees say they are being asked to choose whether to die in Guinea or at home. If they stay in Guinea, refugees fear a repeat of last year's outbreak of harassment and violence at the hands of Guineans who blame them for the violence at the border. If they return home, they face an uncertain future, since both Sierra Leone and Liberia remain in a fragile balance between war and peace. Either choice raises serious protection concerns for the long-term safety of the refugees.
The likelihood of renewed and escalating violence in Guinea and the sub-region remains high, as does the risk of refugees falling victim yet again to this insecurity: a situation that they are acutely aware of. Many of these refugees have already suffered violence and abuse repeatedly. They originally fled horrific civil war atrocities in their home countries. As refugees in Guinea, they are victim to cross-border attacks by the very forces they sought to flee. They are also subject to anti-refugee violence and harassment at the hands of Guineans.
Over the past few years, cross-border attacks between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have escalated. The fighting between varying alliances of government and rebel forces threatens to drag the entire sub-region into a widening circle of war. Heightened security in Guinea is evident, particularly in the border area. A state of emergency is in effect at the border and military checkpoints have increased. The Guinean government, which has generously hosted many of these refugees for over a decade, is becoming increasingly hostile to their presence; in part, due to legitimate concerns about the threats to national security posed by attacks from Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also for reasons of domestic politics.
Attention by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Guinea has largely been focused on a program to relocate the refugees from the border area to new camps in the interior, in operations completed at the end of May 2001. While the relocation process is a major step towards assuring the security and protection of the refugees, there are a number of human rights issues that will continue to remain of concern.
Refugees remain vulnerable to abuses by the Guinean authorities on the road, in towns, and in their camps. Human Rights Watch believes that UNHCR, the Guinean government, and donor governments should focus on a number of human rights issues in following up the recently completed relocation process. These include:
· Arbitrary Arrests and Poor Prison Conditions: Refugees have been held in Guinean detention facilities in Forecariah, Guéckédou, and Kissidougou, often without charge or trial, and some have been subjected to torture and summary executions. Refugees who are accused of rebel affiliation and arrested are held in poor conditions, physically mistreated, and denied due process of law. Refugees can be held for weeks or even months without being charged, and without any real evidence or specific complaint against them.
· Inadequate Registration and Identity Documentation: The abuses that refugees encounter at the hands of the authorities are exacerbated by the absence of a standard form of identity documentation for refugees in Guinea. The Guinean government and UNHCR currently issue no official documents to identify refugees.
· Insufficient Attention to Refugees Remaining in the Border Area: UNHCR ended its principal assistance programs to the border area at the end of May 2001 after completing the relocation program. UNHCR has stated its intent to try to continue as much as possible to assure protection to remaining refugees and new arrivals at the border, although the insecurity and militarization in the area will make this difficult. Many refugees are choosing to stay, although violence is likely to erupt in the area again. They are reluctant to leave the area where many have lived for a decade, are well integrated, and have strong cultural ties with the local community. Others believe that the border will give them a possible escape route if they are threatened with renewed Guinean anti-refugee violence. It is difficult to know what will happen to these refugees, particularly since violence is likely to erupt in the area again, but their welfare must continue to be of concern to UNHCR.
Due in part to the emergency nature of the situation, as well as security, logistic, staffing, and financial constraints, the protection of refugees in Guinea appears to have received less attention than necessary from UNHCR and most of its implementing partners. The number of UNHCR protection officers in Guinea is insufficient, and refugees often have difficulty in accessing and obtaining the help of UNHCR staff. UNHCR protection staff in Guinea appear to have a high turnover, are often on short-term appointments, and some seem unfamiliar with the country and the sub-region. UNHCR has made a commitment to increase the number of its staff in Guinea, including protection staff, although these posts have not yet been filled and deployed. Donor governments have failed to provide the needed funding for assistance and protection of refugees in Guinea. Given the situation, it is critical that refugee protection in Guinea be made an even a stronger priority.
The findings of this report are based on
interviews in Guinea conducted by Human Rights Watch in April 2001, as
well as interviews conducted in Sierra Leone with refugee returnees from
Guinea in February 2001. The interviews were conducted in English or in
Krio using an interpreter.