Cablegate: Unhcr Closes Tabou Transit Center

DE RUEHAB #0723/01 1881249
R 071249Z JUL 06





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. SUMMARY: RefCoord traveled to Tabou, Cote d'Ivoire, on
June 27-30 to meet with UNHCR officials regarding their
repatriation efforts and the pending closure of the Tabou
Transit Center (TC). RefCoord also traveled to several
surrounding villages and met with refugee representatives.
Although return movements from Cote d'Ivoire to Liberia have
been minimal this year, UNHCR expects numbers to pick up in
July and August for several reasons, including their decision
to close the TC on June 30, efforts to integrate Liberian
refugees into the Ivoirian school system, and the end of the
harvest season in Cote d'Ivoire. UNHCR believes a large
number of refugees will stay in Cote d'Ivoire and plans to
focus its future activities on promoting local integration.
RefCoord also visited Niplou, one of the villages attacked in
January that led to internal displacement and is still
largely abandoned. The closure of the TC represents an
important, although not final, step in UNHCR's assistance
activities in Cote d'Ioire. End Summary.

2. RefCoord met Mahamadou Toure, Head of Field Office for
UNHCR Tabou, on June 28 to discuss UNHCR's ongoing return
activities as well as the pending closure of the Transit
Center (TC) in Tabou for Liberian refugees. Toure told
RefCoord the TC would close on June 30 and that UNHCR had
already transferred approximately 900 refugees to Tabou town
and to some of the surrounding villages (Note: local papers
announced the closing on July 3. End note). He said they
had begun to dismantle unsafe structures in the TC as people
moved out. Although UNHCR had stopped general food
distribution to refugees, they did provide three months
ration to any refugee who agreed to leave the TC and they
will provide general services to vulnerable groups to the end
of the year. Toure said Liberian refugee children will have
to enroll in Ivoirian schools in the fall and that Liberian
refugees will have to participate in the local health system
as of January 1, 2007. RefCoord also met with
representatives of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
but was not able to visit PRM-funded project sites due to
heavy flooding and poor road conditions.


3. UNHCR's figures show that a total of 15,396 refugees have
returned to Liberia from Cote d'Ivoire since November 2004,
with most returns occurring last year (13,498). So far, only
about 1,800 Liberians have returned from Cote d'Ivoire in
2006. There are only two UNHCR-managed camps in Cote
d'Ivoire, in Guiglo (approximately 7,000 refugees) and the
now closed TC in Tabou (approximately 2,400 refugees). The
rest of the Liberian refugees (approximately 30,000) are
integrated in local villages in the western region known as
the refugee welcome zone (ZAR).

4. Toure said about 9,000 of all returns from Cote d'Ivoire
have come from the Tabou region. However, the most recent
convoy on June 27 carried only 91 persons, the highest figure
since April 7. Still, in 2005 the majority of returns
occurred in July and August. Toure believes a similar
pattern might emerge in 2006 for three reasons. First, Toure
believes UNHCR's decision to close the TC and to end general
food distribution will send a strong signal to many refugees
that it is time to return. In addition, the harvest season
has just ended and many refugees will receive their salary
payments from local plantations in early July. Finally,
Toure explained that UNHCR will not offer separate education
classes for Liberian children when the school year starts
again in the fall. Instead, they will be integrated in the
local Ivoirian school system. Thus, many parents will want
to return so their children can enroll in the Liberian system.


5. RefCoord visited the TC with Toure on June 29. We
expected to see some dismantled accommodations and a large
number of residents still waiting to be transferred, but the
TC looked instead like a tornado had run through the middle
of it. Most structures were completely flattened and bits of
lumber lay scattered throughout the compound. Some
structures had obviously burned to the ground, but the ashes
and cinders were cleaned and removed. Throughout the TC

ABIDJAN 00000723 002 OF 003

refugees were taking apart remaining buildings and bundling
up the wood to bring with them to the villages or to Tabou
where they would now take up residence. RefCoord also
visited the UNHCR center for vulnerable groups (ENA). Toure
stated they had identified approximately 170 vulnerables who
would be provided with food and full health services to the
end of the year. A local UNHCR field officer said already
about half of those in the ENA had decided to leave the
center and had moved to Tabou with friends of family members
as conditions in the ENA were definitely a step down from the


6. RefCoord met with refugee community representatives to
discuss the ongoing repatriation process. Several
representatives explained that they did not agree with the
manner in which UNHCR was closing the TC and that many
refugees needed continued assistance. RefCoord told the
representatives that the closure of the TC was part of
UNHCR's repatriation process and had already been announced
to refugees. RefCoord mentioned that on two previous visits
to the TC in October 2005 and in March 2006 he had informed
refugees that donors were moving financial resources to help
rebuild Liberia and that they would find fewer resources
going outside that country. Several refugees spoke about
security concerns in Liberia. When pressed for examples they
referred to a weak Liberian judicial system and the fact that
they had heard the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia had a curfew for
diplomatic personnel. One refugee admitted that his wife had
already returned to Liberia. A couple of refugees voiced
concern that locals in Tabou might blame Liberians for any
problems that might occur now that a large number of them had
moved into town. Separately, Toure informed RefCoord that
the Deputy Chairman of the Refugee Committee had decided to
return to Liberia on the previous day's convoy after UNHCR
started dismantling the TC.


7. RefCoord visited the villages of Oudjire, Mane, and
Niplou on June 28. Approximately 170 Liberian refugees live
in Oudjire and 260 in Mane. The Liberians in Niplou live in
a small settlement of about 50 persons just outside the
village. There are many similar settlemant in the area where
the Liberians have access to jobs on local plantations. In
most cases Liberian refugees in these villages live among
Ivoirians of similar ethnic background. The refugees did not
appear to be in any hurry to return to Liberia and the locals
did not appear anxious to have them leave. Instead, refugees
asked questions about the level of assistance they could
expect if they remained in Cote d'Ivoire as opposed to
assistance that would be available if they returned to
Liberia. None of the Liberians RefCoord spoke to in these
three villages said they would not return to Liberia under
any circumstances.


8. Niplou was among several villages attacked in January
over land-tenure disputes that resulted in several deaths and
hundreds of internally displaced (ref. A). Tucked deep in
the forest, Niplou is still largely abandoned although the
presence of a small contingent of Ivoirian gendarmes in the
village has encouraged a few inhabitants to return. Both
UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported
the pre-January population in Niplou was between 200-250
persons. IRC reported that approximately 180 persons were
displaced to Mane and that some 120 of those were children.
During RefCoord's visit to Mane, however, the village
representatives could only say there were "many" people from
Niplou in their village.

9. The attacks were apparently perpetrated by ethnic Lobi
attempting to reclaim their plantations after a seven-year
exile for their responsibility in the death of a local Kru
member. Still, no one could say for sure who led the
attacks. Toure said the local Prefect had informed him that
the leader of the attack was probably an Ivoirian, but this
still does not fully answer the questions surrounding final
responsibility. Interestingly, the Liberians RefCoord met
just outside Niplou seemed completely unconcerned by their

ABIDJAN 00000723 003 OF 003

proximity to the village despite the fact that some Liberians
had fled at the time of the attacks. Toure confirmed that
Liberians have not been targeted because they do not actually
own any of the plantations in dispute.


10. UNHCR's closure of the TC in Tabou marks an important
milestone in their assistance activities in Cote d'Ivoire. At
the same time, real challenges still remain. Some refugees
do have shelter concerns and relations between locals in
Tabou and the refugees need to be handled with sensitivity.
Also, poor road conditions in Liberia between Harper and the
surrounding villages have already delayed the return of one
group of 25 refugees who just left the TC. For those
refugees who remain in Cote d'Ivoire, issues of schooling and
potential labor exploitation of children will remain high on
the list of concerns for UNHCR and NGOs in the region. In
the meantime, returns from Cote d'Ivoire are likely to be
mixed. Cote d'Ivoire still has more to offer Liberian
refugees in terms of economic opportunity and basic services
than their places of origin in Liberia, and work on local
plantations in the Tabou region is readily available. In
fact, many refugees who had returned to Liberia have already
come back to Cote d'Ivoire, as non-refugees, because of the
availability of jobs and basic services. Still, the fact
that many of the refugees seem to be weighing the decision to
return or stay on the basis of available levels of assistance
shows that security concerns in Liberia are beginning to take
a back seat to concerns over their own economic well-being.

© Scoop Media

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