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Cablegate: Liberians Riot at Freetown Unhcr Office

VZCZCXYZ0007
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHFN #0496/01 1711750
ZNR UUUUU ZZH CCY ADXE4DC35 MSI3983 612
P 191701Z JUN 06
FM AMEMBASSY FREETOWN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9931
INFO RUEHZK/ECOWAS COLLECTIVE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0152
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RUCNFB/FBI WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC

UNCLAS FREETOWN 000496

SIPDIS

C O R R E C T E D C O P Y (ADDING ASEC TAG)

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958
TAGS: PREF PREL PINS ASEC SL LI
SUBJECT: Liberians Riot At Freetown UNHCR Office


-------
Summary
-------

1. On June 12, a small contingent of disgruntled Liberian
refugees, including ex-combatants who were recently
refused refugee status, led an assault on the Freetown
UNHCR office. Police arrested 61 people, but only after
approximately $50,000 worth of damage was done to UNHCR
vehicles and ground floor offices. Liberians who
participated in the assault were frustrated over the fact
that they had not been chosen for resettlement and
claimed that Sierra Leoneans are fraudulently obtaining
refugee status and being resettled. Although such claims
are not without merit, they appear to have been
misdirected at a low-level, local hire UNHCR staffer.
The riot's ringleaders violence have been arrested, but
UNHCR has advised caution around the July visit of
Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) interviewers, who will
interview 228 Liberian refugees for resettlement in the
U.S. Renewed unrest among the old caseload of urban
refugees is indeed possible, especially since some of the
more recently arrived, camp-based refugees will soon be
interviewed for resettlement. End Summary.

------------------------------------
Liberian Refugees and Others Destroy
UNHCR Vehicles, Offices
------------------------------------

2. On June 8, approximately 100 people gathered outside
the Freetown UNHCR office on Wilkinson Road and blocked
the entrance for approximately three hours. Bashir
Fahmbulleh, who claimed to be the Chairman of Liberian
refugees in Sierra Leone, later told a reporter that the
reason for the protest was because a UNHCR employee was
"selling refugee asylum privileges" to Sierra Leoneans
for thousands of U.S. dollars and demanded that she be
fired.

3. On June 12, a smaller but more violent group returned
and broke into the UNHCR compound, smashed the windows of
23 UNHCR vehicles and plundered two of the ground floor
UNHCR offices causing approximately $50,000 worth of
damage. Police arrested 61 people, charged 37, and are
still looking for 8. Of those arrested, 17 were Liberian
refugees, 13 were not, and 7 (including Fahmbulleh) were
Liberian ex-combatants whose refugee status had been
rejected.

4. UNHCR Representative for Sierra Leone Elike Segbor
told PolOff that he had signed approximately 50 refugee
status rejection letters to Liberian ex-combatants since
his arrival in August 2005, most of them in the last two
or three months. They are upset, Segbor said, because
they have not been chosen for resettlement.

----------------------
Where Were The Police?
----------------------

5. Segbor told PolOff that after the first demonstration,
UNHCR staff discovered that the refugees planned to
demonstrate again. After reinforcing their security
posture, UNHCR staff met with the police commissioner,
who promised (and later failed) to send an extra
contingent of officers. When the rioting started, only
eight unarmed police officers were guarding the gates.
(Note: Segbor said that a group of approximately 100
people had gathered the day before at the National
Stadium to plan the raid, but bemoaned that the police
had not picked up on it. We later learned that the
Criminal Investigation Department did pick up
intelligence on the upcoming raid, but that the
Operational Support Department failed to act on it - and
the warnings by UNHCR personnel. End Note.)

6. On June 12 just after 1200, Segbor said, rioters tried
to break through the gates at the UNHCR office. The
unarmed police, who had one radio among them, called for
backup but there was no response. Between 50 and 60
demonstrators breached the gates at approximately 1225.
Armed police arrived at approximately 1300 and were able
to arrest some of the rioters, but by the time the police
with riot gear arrived, the demonstration was over.

(Note: Key to the dispersal of the demonstrators was most
likely a combination of the arrest of the ringleaders and
a heavy rainstorm that began in the middle of the riot.
End Note.)

-----------------------------------
Resettlement Fraud Claims, Although
Misdirected, May Have Merit
-----------------------------------

7. Fahmbulleh's claim that UNHCR local hire employee
Inathorma Kumba was selling asylum privileges is not
true, Segbor said. Kumba is a community services
assistant and has no authority when it comes to
recommending families for resettlement, he said.

8. That is not to say, however, that "asylum privileges"
are not being sold, Segbor said. Although UNHCR takes as
many precautions as it can to verify identity and
eliminate imposters, there is only so far that safeguards
can go. He has heard rumors, for example, that Liberian
refugees selected for resettlement are selling spots for
"family members" for $1,000 to $3,000. There are also
imposters who claim to have been accepted for
resettlement who reportedly charge $1,000 to $1,500 for
selling (nonexistent) family slots.

-------------------
July OPE Interviews
Merit Caution
-------------------

9. Segbor said that his staff is identifying 228 refugees
for Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) personnel to
interview during the first week of July for resettlement
in the U.S. Segbor said that during a recent
conversation with IOM Chief of Mission Andrew Choga, he
cautioned that IOM may want to increase security around
the IOM compound for the duration of the interviews.
(Note: Refugee screening interviews will probably be held
in the IOM headquarters building in Freetown on Signal
Hill Road, close to the EMR and Embassy apartments. End
Note.)

10. Unlike last year, Segbor said, UNHCR will be
identifying refugees currently living in refugee camps
for possible resettlement. (Note: The refugees living in
camps arrived more recently than the refugees living in
urban areas. In 2005, refugee interviewees were all
selected from the urban refugee population. End Note.)

-------
Comment
-------

11. The violence on June 12 was likely triggered by the
recent delivery of refugee status rejection letters to
Liberian ex-combatants. There was plenty of frustration
to go around, though, since not all of those arrested
were ex-combatants or even recognized Liberian refugees.
It is possible that UNHCR's decision to recommend more
recently arrived camp-based refugees for resettlement
could trigger more resentment and unrest among urban
refugees (or those who consider themselves to be such).
The arrest of the riot's ringleaders removes the
immediate problem, but concerns about future outbreaks of
violence from frustrated urban refugees, weak police
response, and possible fraud within the resettlement
program remain and will require the continued vigilance
of UNHCR and other stakeholders, including the USG.

HULL

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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