LIBERIAN REFUGEES: A NATION IN EXILE
By J. Kpanneh Doe
There are few issues that are so vivid, emotional and rivetting that appeal to the conscience as is the current crisis of refugees. A refugee crisis appears to suddenly flare up in the news and has caught the world's attention. The world media has not relented in projecting some of the most horrific images mankind is capable of inflicting against humanity as witnessed in Kosovo. Not leaving aside the violence, brutal and sadistic killings that were evident a few years ago in Bosnia and Rwanda.
These developments, which are occurring as this century comes to a close, have brought to the fore a whole new set of problems the world must now confront. At a time when so many long-standing international problems seem to be near solution the cold war is over, the Middle East Peace process has begun, waves of countries are gravitating from military rule to democracy the problem of refugees is getting worse. The refugee dilemma has therefore moved to the center stage of world concern and attention and occupies a pivotal spot in the national security agenda of most countries.
But who is a refugee? According to the internationally accepted definition provided by the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, a refugee is someone with a "well-founded fear of being prosecuted in his or her country of origin for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."
Influenced mostly by European and western thinking, this definition was limited to only refugees affected by events occurring prior to 1951 in Europe (World War II), thus excluding the rest of the world's refugees from its protection mandate. In spite of modifications in a 1967 UN protocol, the implicit western and Euro-centric bias remained untouched. With few exceptions, the dropping of the geographic limit and cut-off date, the definition of "refugee" incorporated in the convention and protocol was limited to the persons, race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
According to United Nations' experts, the restrictive nature of this convention mandate has been obvious in the third world, where it has been superseded in Africa and Latin America by a more inclusive definition that more closely connects with the reality of forced migration in those parts of the world. Both the Organization of African Unity (OAU) convention regarding the specific aspects of the refugees problems in Africa and the Cartegena Declaration, adopted by the Organization of American State (OAS) in 1985, include as refugees persons falling within the definition of the refugee convention and protocol, but in addition, extended the protection to persons compelled to flee their country due to foreign aggression and occupation, foreign domination, internal conflicts, massive human rights violations or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order.
All this considered, Africa and the world are rife with refugees. Let's go straight to the facts. According to current estimates from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), there are 17 million refugees in the world today. Another 15 to 25 million people (commonly referred to as Internally Displaced People because they are displaced within their own country) have been uprooted within their home countries by war, natural disaster or poverty. The vast majority of these are women and children.
Africa's share of refugees is enormous. There are some 6 million refugees in Africa, most of them victims of civil wars, including 2.5 million in the Horn, 2 million in Angola and Mozambique, and 750,000 in Liberia.
These numbers are not declining. The ranks of refugees who have fled their homelands are swelling. Long-running civil wars, and most recent outbreaks of war in places like Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, etc. have contributed to the further increase of refugees in Africa.
Whether in Kosovo or in Liberia, these refugees or dispossessed persons have one common characteristic they have been deprived of the protection of their own countries, and they are in need of essential humanitarian assistance and a new home. They are refugees and they are powerless and almost dependent upon the generosity of others for protection and care.
Refugees have common experiences as well which are deepened and striking. Their tales of horror are similar, and the stories of carnage beyond imagination. All have experienced some of the most unspeakable violence and crimes against humanity extermination, murder, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, and other inhumane acts.
There are no shortage of stories of some of the most despicable horror refugees have experienced. For example, there is the commonly told story of families being separated the men taken apart from the women whole villages being razed and burned to ashes, mass killing and extinction, people being doused with gasoline and set on fire. Then there is the raping and slashing of pregnant women stomach and their newborn taken away and dumped into the river. Needless to mention, the chopping-off of hands with an axe, the smashing of kneecaps with a hammer and cutting of throats with knives. These stories are graphic as they are shocking.
But there is one touching story which seems to crown it all: This has to do with a five-year-old girl whose fingers were chopped off. She asked innocently, "when will my fingers grow again?" This happened in Africa, it happened in Sierra Leone. But this also typifies a pattern of gross human rights abuse throughout the continent.
But what do these stories say about refugees vis-à-vis their governments? The Liberian situation is of particular interest and concern. The 1998 U.S. State Department Human Rights report, for example, not only offers a scathing indictment of the gross human rights abuse occurring in the country, but paints a bleak picture of a country lacking the capacity to offer protection and security to its citizens. Because of the lack of human rights protection and security, this has contributed to forced migration and mass exodus of Liberians from their own country. There is now a phenomenon of Liberian "Diaspora communities" being established in various neighboring countries, and the growth of a "nation in exile."
This wave of mass migration is occurring at an ever increasing pace. According to reports from various relief organizations, there are at least a 100 Liberians leaving their country each day for resettlement in another country. This raised the specter as to whether government's policies don't militate against its citizens remaining in their own country. Granted, there are numerous reasons why people migrate, including but not limited to professional, educational, economic, etc. But never before in the history of the country has there been such a migration on such a massive scale.
Liberians have always been a proud and dignified people even amidst their conditions. Despite the problems they encountered as refugees, they have always been eager to return to their homeland no matter how long they have stayed overseas. Now, they have become deeply cynical, sometimes resentful of their own country. Most Liberians now refer to their country as "that country," or "your country," thus putting a distance and not wanting to be associated with a country that has been politically stymied.
But observers of the Liberian political landscape however, contend that the government under the reigns of Charles Taylor, is implicitly pursuing a deliberate policy of creating an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and insecurity which have contributed to mass exodus, almost forced migration of Liberians to other countries. One commentator, for example, opined that: "the government has a mind-set that is crisis-prone, security-driven and vindictive every three to six months a crisis is created whether real or imagined, in order to project a façade of being proactive." This does not only undermine peace and stability, but it has brought further disintegration to people's lives.
Observers also point to several incidents over the past few months which tend to lend credence to the "crisis-prone" nature of the Taylor government. Two prominent developments which have occurred in the last 12 months provide a good case in point: The September 18, 1998, Camp Johnson Road massacre, and the April 21, 1999 Voinjama incidence.
Both of these developments triggered forced migration and mass exodus of Liberians. In the case of the September 18 massacre, the UNHCR reported that there were an estimated 4,000 Liberians, mostly from the Krahn ethnic group, who fled to the Ivory Coast. Whereas in the case of the April 21 Voinjama incident an estimated 6,000 Liberians were reported to have fled to neighboring Guinea in safety.
Meanwhile, veiled threats, including loose, irresponsible and reckless statements such as the one made recently by the head-of-state when he said: "Liberians journalists should not test my leniency," only adds to the environment of fear and insecurity that haunts the country.
Liberia's postwar refugee population now stands at an estimated one million. This means that about half of the population resides outside the country. Resettlement in another country has become the trend for most Liberians, instead of repatriation which has been the stated goal for most refugees worldwide. Aside from NGO's support for repatriation, the government of Liberia has no real program in place, except for a symbolic Commission on Repatriation and Resettlement, which only exists in name, but lacks any resources to perform its task.
The Liberian refugee situation seems to present a doomsday scenario. Living in exile no longer seems to be an option for most Liberians. For example, Liberians refugees in the United States have taken the issue of resettlement to a higher level by lobbying U.S. Congress to change their Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to a permanent status. A bill the Liberian Refugee Immigration Protection bill is currently being sponsored by Representative Patrick Kennedy and Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Their fine efforts are noteworthy.
While Liberians are staking their claims for asylum in the United States on grounds that deportation will separate families who have established deep roots, and are vibrant, tax-paying citizens to local American communities; that there should be a sense of fairness [and proportionality] with Bosnian/Kosovo refugees; the real unspoken and underlying reason Liberians have resolved not to return home at this time is due to the existence of a genuine sense of fear and insecurity that permeates the country.
So what is the future of Liberian refugees? The future of Liberian refugees is linked to the future of Liberian democracy. If the government creates an environment of peace and stability, and pursues a path of democracy, Liberians would have no cause to emigrate.
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