The first home visit: the 'return' experiences of Liberian regufee women in Ghana.

Author:Boateng, Alice


Refugees are one of the world's most complex and pressing challenges. This is so because civilians, through no fault of their own, have become the main targets of war, forcing them to flee beyond their borders, and become strangers in other lands. Although civilians represented only 5% of all casualties in World War I, and 50% in World War ii, they now constitute more than 90% war casualties worldwide. (1) As a result, nearly 12 million civilian refugees have left their countries in search of asylum. An additional 23 million are internally displaced persons. (2) The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as a person who:

Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that or, who not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. (3) Unable to return to their homeland, some of the refugees settle permanently in their country of first asylum or they are forced to move again to a third state. Others find themselves confined indefinitely to "temporary" camps. Many of these refugees are forced to spend years living in confined areas with substandard living conditions. Refugees are considered to be unsettled when they have lived in exile for more than five years, and still have no immediate prospect of finding a durable solution to their plight by means of voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement. (4) Although the refugee situation is a concern worldwide, the problem is particularly troublesome in Africa. The Liberian civil war, which ended in 2003, has produced the largest flow of refugees in the West African sub-region. Unfortunately, attempts to repatriate the Liberian refugees, for the most part, have been unsuccessful.

The current study examines the experiences of Liberian refugee women who had made their first visit to post-war Liberia, and then returned to the Buduburam camp in Ghana. The purpose of this study was to investigate and understand post-war return-related issues that affected the refugee women and their families. The following review of literature provides the necessary background for the study, followed by a description of the Buduburam camp, the background of the women, and the findings and conclusions drawn from interviews with the women.


Since the 1950s, many nations in Africa have suffered civil wars and ethnic strife, generating massive numbers of refugees. Africa was divided into European colonies in 1885, which then were liberated into independent nations in the 1950s and 1960s. These massive changes in political organization have contributed to Africa's intrastate warfare, which has escalated over the years. in 1968, there were 860,000 refugees. By 1992, this number had peaked to more than 6,775,000. (5) Currently, there are an estimated 2,692,100 refugees living in Africa. (6)

This most recent figure underestimates the extent of the problem as it does not include internally displaced persons, who do not cross international borders, and therefore do not fit the official definition of refugee. Consequently, many African countries are simultaneously countries of origin for some refugees and countries of asylum for other refugees. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, was the native country for 462,203 refugees at the end of 2004, but the asylum country for 199,323 additional refugees. (7)

Increased concern for the plight of the world's refugees, has led to the establishment of refugee treaties. In Africa there are three major refugee treaties that seek to enhance the protection of refugees in the sub-region: the 1951 United Nations Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention. (8) Embedded in these treaties are the rights and benefits of refugees, which include the right to work, the right to education, and freedom of movement. Although every government that has signed the treaties is obligated to provide refugees with these rights, the reality is that many fail to do so. Every year millions of refugees face persecution for personal traits that they cannot control or for exercising their religious or political beliefs. A refugee survey indicated, for instance, that Tanzania's increasingly anti-refugee policies eroded the ability of most Burundian refugees in western Tanzania to survive. In particular, Tanzanian officials restricted refugees from traveling very far outside of camp perimeters, reducing their ability to farm or earn income. This policy violates the refugees' work and mobility rights spelled out in Articles 17 and 26 of the 1951 UN Convention. (9)

The treaties include guidelines designed to protect refugees' rights while they are living temporarily in a host country. They also outline three durable solutions to the refugee situation established by the UNHCR, the United Nations agency that oversees the protection of refugees and displaced persons. Durable solutions include: local integration in the country of first asylum in the sub-region, voluntary repatriation or return to the refugee's home country, and resettlement into a third country, preferably one that is industrialized such as Great Britain or the United States. All three are regarded as durable because they promise an end to refugees' suffering and their dependence on humanitarian assistance.

Unfortunately, the feasibility of these durable solutions and the relative priority accorded to each has changed over time. Local integration is difficult when countries are poor and very few African immigrants are allowed into developed countries. In West Africa, repatriation efforts have not proved to be successful, and refugee rights are not being honored. A report by the West African Non-Governmental Organizations Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Network (WARIPNET) highlighted the suffering that repatriated refugees experienced when they returned home to Liberia and Mauritania, which led to the adoption of Article 5(1) at the OAU Convention. Article 5(1) stipulates that "the essential voluntary character of repatriation shall be respected in all cases and no refugee shall be repatriated against his will." (10) As a result, there are many refugees who continue to live in "temporary" African refugee camps, who are still dependent on the international community for food and basic humanitarian needs.

Refugee Camps

Refugee camps are built by governments or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to host refugees when they initially flee to another country. Refugees stay in these camps, receiving emergency food and medical aid, until it is safe Io return to their homes or until they are reunited with family or friends outside the camps. In some cases, even after several years, host countries decide it will never be safe to return to their country of origin, and they are resettled in "third countries," away from the borders of their homeland.

By the time they get to the camps, most refugees are destitute and traumatized by their war experiences. Most have escaped with their lives and not much else. Family members who provided economic support may have been killed or separated from them in the conflict. Community networks are destroyed, reducing the refugees' access to social capital. Therefore most refugees arrive in the camps socially and economically destitute. (11)

Without assets or social networks to sustain them, the refugees begin their personal and economic recovery in the camps under conditions of severe loss and need. Humanitarian aid is crucial for the survival of these newcomers. In the initial stages, assistance in the form of basic goods and services such as shelter, nutrition support, and trauma counseling are provided by the UNHCR and its implementing partners. This emergency phase is intended to last for several months. After that, a "care and maintenance" phase takes over with a core system of operational NGOs that remain in the camp to provide food aid and basic services such as water, sanitation, and health services. Income generating programs are sometimes implemented to encourage self-reliance as the refugees transition to reduced assistance.

The delivery of humanitarian assistance is usually coordinated by a "lead agency," with UNHCR overseeing and advocating to the host government on behalf of the refugees. A government official presides over the camp. As time passes, if the refugees do not return to their country of origin, or find other solutions such as local resettlement or local integration, a protracted refugee encampment develops, and refugee camps become relatively permanent abode in the host country. (12)

Many of these long-term camps are the breeding ground for disease, child soldiering, terrorist recruitment, and physical and sexual violence. (13) In any protracted refugee situation, levels of humanitarian assistance in the camps decline, resulting in a serious crisis for the refugees. These camps were designed to be temporary. Unfortunately, many refugees are warehoused in camps for years without a livelihood. For example, the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya have warehoused refugees for years and Eritrean refugees have been kept in Sudanese camps for over forty years. (14)

The Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, where this study took place, is another example of refugees who have lived in a temporary camp for years. The Buduburam camp houses Liberian refugees, who are survivors of the 15-year Liberian civil war. Although the Liberian civil war ended in 2003 and some of the refugees have returned home to Liberia, many still live in the original camp, which has been renamed a...

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