13 May 2014

Cote d'Ivoire: Ivoirian Refugees Return to Homelessness

Abidjan — Tens of thousands of western Côte d'Ivoire residents who fled deadly election turmoil three years ago have returned home, where survival is a daily struggle as more than half of them remain homeless.

Voluntary repatriation by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has brought home 33,702 people from neighbouring Liberia since 2011. Around 400 have also returned from Guinea and an unknown number have come back on their own. The 2010-2011 post-election conflict forced some 220,000 people to flee western Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia.

UNHCR's deputy representative in Côte d'Ivoire, Serge Ruso, told IRIN that 52 percent of the former refugees have no houses. Violence ignited by the disputed outcome of the November 2010 presidential run-off first broke out in the country's west, where armed gangs supporting then opposition candidate and now President Alassane Ouattara raided villages, killed and drove out people seen as supporters of then incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Many of the former refugees restarting life at home without a roof over their heads have sought shelter with friends or relatives. Those whose land has not been illegally seized by their ethnic or political foes are slowly rebuilding, while the loss of both homes and farms to rivals has deepened desperation and longstanding rancour for others.

The government's Post-Crisis Assistance Programme (PAPC) says 2,243 houses need reconstruction or refurbishment in the crisis-riven west, and that it rebuilt or restored 687 houses in 2012 thanks to World Bank funding.

"Every night we go to bed very afraid because strong winds during the rainy season may blow away the straw roofs or crush our mud houses," said Georges Nonzi, now living in a small village near the western town of Duékoué

Land tenure disputes

Land has been at the centre of conflict in the region, and with the looming 2015 elections, lingering tensions over access to land could trigger violence.

Nonzi, 66, and his family survived the July 2012 attack on a camp outside Duékoué housing some 5,000 people who had been displaced by the 2010-2011 poll violence. The attack was seen as ethnically driven, as it was blamed on armed Malinké men backed by traditional hunters known as dozo who support Ouattara. The camp was home to mainly Guéré people who are Gbagbo sympathizers.

"Housing is quite critical, but there are underlying problems that should be urgently resolved," said a senior NGO official on condition of anonymity. "All those returning have nowhere to go. The land ownership problems still remain. Every returning refugee or displaced person is an additional land problem that needs resolving."

Land tenure in Côte d'Ivoire is either customary or statutory. Ninety-eight percent of land in rural Côte d'Ivoire is owned through customary law. The statutory system is applicable only when land is registered. The government in 1998 passed a rural land law aiming to recognize and formalize customary land rights by setting out procedures and conditions for them to be transformed into title deeds. But land ownership agreements are still predominantly verbal, a matter that has contributed to the recurrent disputes.

The land disputes add to political rivalries that often take on an ethnic dimension. Observers have criticized the government for failing to carry out far-reaching reconciliation and fair justice in the aftermath of the violent 2010-2011 election crisis. Côte d'Ivoire's west is seen as having borne the brunt of the country's years of crisis since the 1999 toppling of President Henri Konan Bédié.

Ivoirian political analyst Lamine Kourouma says the authorities now give attention to the western region only when there are armed raids, which have been most frequent in the west than any other region in the country since the tumultuous election.

"Today problems about land, community rehabilitation, improving infrastructure, development and reintegration of former fighters are a low priority," Kourouma.

More returnees

Still, many Ivoirians in refuge want to return home. The UNHCR plans to repatriate 16,000 refugees from neighbouring Liberia this year. In March, the agency and the Liberian government closed down the third camp in southeastern Liberia as more Ivoirians returned home.

UNHCR's Ruso said they will rehabilitate 380 houses in western Côte d'Ivoire to ease refugee resettlement.

"Those who are returning have no houses to go to. Some have benefited from community projects by aid groups, but considering the losses during all these years of crisis, this assistance is very little," said Albert Gbahou, head of Yrozon village in the country's west.

"Everyone is looking at the government for solutions to the problems. The refugees, the displaced who were dispossessed of their land need to get it back in order to settle. Since the returns begun, we have been working with families to help out those returning, but this is quite insufficient," Gbahou added.

Land dispossession has deprived families of livelihoods in the agriculturally rich western Côte d'Ivoire, Human Rights Watch found in an October 2013 study.

"The current pre-election atmosphere does not favour peaceful return of refugees. As long as the problems they are facing are not resolved, there's always a risk of a crisis," said Ivoirian lawyer and political analyst Julien Kouao.

"We know that since 2000 we have been repeating our political mistakes and our misfortunes too. This is what confirms the fears of renewed crisis."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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