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UNHCR to Re-establish Full Fledged Office in Liberia

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Antonio Guterres says the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is to re-establish a full-fledged structure similar to that which existed in Liberia in the past.

According to a Foreign Ministry release, High Commissioner Guterres made the assertion when he met with Acting Foreign Minister, Mr. J. Levi Demmah Thursday, at the end of a two-day visit to Liberia to assess UNHCR’s activities in Liberia in light of the Ivorian refugee crisis.

Mr. Guterres said his return to Liberia represents a “U-Turn” of his Organization’s presence in Liberia.  “We are gearing up not only to bring in emergency teams but to re-establish a full-fledged structure in order to fully cooperate with the Liberian Government in relation to the present and future challenges,” he said predicting that Liberia could face a serious humanitarian challenge; not only for refugees but for the host communities as well.

Speaking further, the High Commissioner disclosed that on Tuesday alone, the agency registered over 6,000 new Ivorian refugees at the border area fleeing the turmoil in Ivory Coast. This brings the amount more than 95,000 refugees in Liberia.

He said with the massive influx, the UNHCR needs to be much more engaged including collaborating closely with the Liberian Government and partners.

Since the end of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian conflicts, the UNHCR had begun to scale down its activities in the Liberia. As the post-conflict government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gained a foothold, Liberia gradually moved from emergency and humanitarian to the development phase.

Mr. Guterres said his visit to Liberia was to express his agency’s gratitude for what has been an impeccable and seemingly generous policy by the government and people of Liberia towards incoming Ivorian refugees over the last few months.

He was also in the country to raise awareness of the plight of the thousands of Ivorian refugees including need for the international community to do more to assist them.

He noted that most of the international media has now shifted its attention from the looming humanitarian crisis in the sub-region to the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East as well as the recent earthquake that triggered a tsunami in Japan with devastating consequences.

“We believe that there’s been the lack of attention to the Ivorian crisis and we think it’s very important to make the international community understand that the Ivorian crisis does not only have dramatic humanitarian implications but it’s also a security threat to the sub-region,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugee said.

The UNHCR High Commissioner reiterated that international engagement needs to be much more forthcoming in order to quickly re-establish peace in Ivory Coast and not allow for much better support and the continued hosting of refugees; rather, to minimize the security and stability risks for the whole region.

On appeal from Acting Foreign Minister Demmah to intervene in repatriating stranded Liberians and refugees from trouble spots in the region, the UNHCR Head reiterated that the UN refugee agency is at the Government’s disposal to cooperate in whatever aspects of regional cooperation Government will be interested in. However, the UNHCR Head said his agency’s greatest concern with Liberians in the region today is that of Ivory Coast.

There are approximately 24,000 Liberians residing in Ivory Coast making them the biggest concentration in the sub-region. Already 300 Liberians in Abidjan, Ivory Coast have occupied the UNHCR premises there as a measure of safety. “The situation we will be emphasizing more than anything else in which it is necessary for us to work together will be the situation in Ivory Coast,” he said.

With regards to Liberian refugees in the sub-region, especially Ghana, the UNHCR High Commissioner said a strategy was developed at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2010 to bring to closure the entire Liberian refugee situation as of the end of this year. He urged the Liberian Government to take the leadership role particularly with regards the issue of the return of Liberians to be received and helped to reintegrate locally.

Acting Minister Demmah expressed happiness to the UNHCR High Commissioner for the personal visit to Liberia to raise the awareness of the plight of the Ivorian refugees and promised that the Liberian Government will try to sustain and elevate that awareness to the level of ECOWAS, African Union and the international community.

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