19 June 2012

Ghana: Liberians in Ghana - When Refugees Cease to Be Refugees


What next for the Liberians in Ghana who will lose their refugee status on June 30?

Perched on vast acres of land dotted with concrete buildings marked in colourful chalk, Buduburam Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, has always been a place of transit for Liberians. Camp dwellers are like expectant passengers on a flight whose destination is still undetermined. Most of them hope to land in America, or somewhere in Europe, on a resettlement package. They hope to be anywhere but here.

As I enter the camp for the first time in nearly 10 years, Buduburam looks like a town hit by the plague. It is virtually empty. In 2002, there were over 30,000 refugees at Buduburam. Now about 5,000 remain. Tens of thousands of refugees have been repatriated to Liberia since October 2004 according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ghana. Just 118 Liberians were resettled to third-party countries from 2007 to 2010.

June 30 is D-Day for refugees at Buduburam and thousands of Liberians like them throughout the sub-region and the diaspora. On that day, Liberian refugees will be stripped of the protection of refugee status. The international community now has faith that Liberia has stabilised. UNHCR-Ghana says the country has shown significant improvements in human rights, the rule of law, and procedural democracy through two post-war 'free and fair' elections. It is debatable, however, whether international benchmarks for success mean anything to those who have not touched Liberian soil in over 10 years. And one wonders if the international community consulted Liberians before deciding their refugee status would be discontinued.

In her article 'Humanitarianism in a Straightjacket', Barbara Harrell-Bond rages against international agencies such as the UNHCR for not allowing communities they serve to help plan and implement the programmes that are meant to transform their lives. Unlike conventional wisdom that frames refugees as helpless, they are agents of their own destiny and should be treated as such.

Indeed, Liberian refugees at Buduburam are far from victims, despite their shared tragedies.


In her dark room deep inside Buduburam, Mercy Sio, 52, maintains a healthy dose of optimism. Like many refugees here, Sio came to Ghana in 2001 trying to escape persecution. But her family fell victim instead - she has lost two adult children, a son in Liberia to tuberculosis, and a daughter in Ghana to liver failure.

When Sio first came to Buduburam, UNHCR provided food to the refugees every two to three months. Eventually, the rations tapered off to nothing. She sustained herself on remittances sent by Liberians abroad or by cooking Liberian food in restaurants in Accra. Sio will be returning to Liberia this month with very little to show for her eleven years at Buduburam. She complains that the 30 kg of luggage UNHCR-Ghana has promised to allow is grossly insufficient. Even with a cash allowance provided by UNHCR-Ghana of $375 per adult, it is difficult to think how one can pack over a decade of life into a single check-in bag.

Some Liberians at Buduburam are more vocal about their anger and disappointment. Alfred Mawolo Jallah, who has served as the Chairman of the Joint Liberian Refugee Committees in Ghana since 2006, an organisation that advocates on behalf of Liberian refugees at Buduburam, says "Our coming here has not helped".

He accuses UNHCR-Ghana of shirking its responsibilities for the refugees. He says that while the UN agency was responsible for providing basic amenities, Liberians at Buduburam were building their own schools and makeshift houses. The international community's decision to cease all assistance to Liberians means that the "refugees will be a liability on the Liberian government," says Jallah. "They are going home the same way they came." According to Jallah, two thirds of the refugees have no formal education.

Little Liberia

To date, the Ghanaian government has not devised a policy to integrate Liberians in Ghana, according to UNHCR-Ghana. It seems pressure needs to come from the Liberian government to hold Ghana's feet to the fire. Given the number of Ghanaians who live and work with ease in Liberia, Ghana's government ought to at least allow Liberians the same level of access.

Prospects for more engagement look bleak, however, with accusations being hurled at the Liberian government for not fulfilling its end of the bargain. But the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission has attempted to respond to the needs of Liberians returning home by facilitating employment, providing scholarships for vocational and technical education, and enabling refugees to use their skills in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Jallah will return with his family to Liberia this month, and he intends to challenge the government he says has always sided with Ghana at the expense of the refugees. Whether or not these interactions yield positive results, Buduburam will forever be remembered as "Little Liberia," the transit point that, as of June 30, 2012, will cease to exist.

Robtel Neajai Pailey was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar.

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