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UN Refugee Agency Chief Wraps Up Tour, West Africa

UN Refugee Agency Chief Wraps Up Tour Of West Africa

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers wrapped up his tour of the West Africa region with a visit over the weekend to Côte d’Ivoire, which, until conflict broke out in 2002, had had a tradition of generosity towards asylum seekers.

Looking at the regional dimensions of the war in Côte d'Ivoire and the wars that have ended in Liberia, Sierra Leone and, to a lesser extent, Guinea, Mr. Lubbers called for a regional approach to disarmament to stabilize the Mano River Union’s three members – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“It is important that the Mano River Union countries, extended to Côte d'Ivoire, uphold common principles, one of them being that only state forces can carry arms and that it is illegal for any other groups to do so, irrespective of the names these irregular elements are given," he said.

In the post-conflict period, Mr. Lubbers’ agency completed its repatriation programme for Sierra Leoneans last July and started a return operation last October for the 340,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa, of whom 100,000 have gone home on their own.

With the UN refugee agency having repatriated some 7,000 Liberian refugees by sea, air and land, Mr. Lubbers said it was time to quicken the pace of return.

In Côte d'Ivoire, the last stop on Mr. Lubbers' six-day, four-nation trip, civil war broke out in September 2002, ending a generous asylum tradition that had allowed refugees to settle in villages instead of being confined to camps.

Anti-refugee sentiments emerged for the first time, and the involvement of some Liberian nationals in the ranks of fighters in western Côte d’Ivoire cast suspicion on all refugees in the minds of many Ivorians. That prompted the UN refugee agency to carry out a massive campaign on the theme, “Your tolerance can make a difference,” which the High Commissioner launched in May 2003 in the country’s economic capital, Abidjan.

Côte d’Ivoire now hosts some 70,000 Liberian refugees and less than 2,000 non-Liberian refugees.

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