DAKAR, 9 November (IRIN) – A refugee camp in southwestern Ghana was under tight security on Wednesday a day after police fired teargas and warning shots to quell rioting that left buildings and vehicles burned and some refugees on the run from the law.
Over the course of the last week, close to 800 of Krisan refugee camp’s 1,700 residents had set out on foot for the nearby Ivorian border to protest their living conditions and to push for the right to settle in a third country other than Ghana and their homeland.
On Tuesday, Ghanaian officials bussed the refugees back to the camp near the coastal town of Axim but, upon their return, violence broke out.
« We had to run for our dear lives, » said Padmore Nyankopa-Arthur, the regional representative for the ministry of interior. « Even the police had to tactically retreat before we called for reinforcements. »
« But by that time, the mayhem had already been caused and the leaders had absconded. »
Some refugees disagree with Nyankopa-Arthur’s account of a professional police overwhelmed by the irrational behaviour of a mob incited to violence by a small number of rabble-rousers.
Instead, they speak of brutal security forces beating people and dragging them before forcing them back to the camp they had fled.
However, both sides agree on the end result: a badly damaged camp and an unknown number of refugees on the run.
« I’m wanted by security forces, » Kennedy Vanyan told IRIN by telephone from his hiding place.
« If I’m caught right now, I’m a dead body, » said Vanyan, who estimated that 400 refugees were too scared to return to the camp.
West Africa is home to about 1.3 million displaced people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Of the more than 60,000 refugees in Ghana, some of whom have lived in camps for over a decade, the vast majority are Liberian and Togolese.
« If we could leave Ghana, we’d be very happy, » said Vanyan who fled the civil war in his native Liberia in 1992 and came to Ghana from Cote d’Ivoire 10 years later when fighting started up there.
There is a perception within Krisan camp that refugees from certain countries, namely Sudan and Sierra Leone, are more likely to benefit from a resettlement programme to a third country.
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which works with Ghana’s government to provide refugees with food, shelter and education, resettlement to countries like the United States and Australia is one of three durable solutions for displaced people.
But it is far less common than repatriation to the country of origin or integration into the host society, as only one percent of refugees ultimately find a home in a third country that offers asylum.
« Resettlement is not something you claim, » said Needa Jehu-Hoyah, public information officer for UNHCR in Ghana’s capital Accra. « You cannot just walk into a place and say resettle me. »
Furthermore, the UNHCR said that, although financial constraints make it very difficult to provide adequately for large refugee populations, Krisan camp is one of the few in West Africa to meet established international standards.
Refugees have been living at Krisan since 1996, and officially UNHCR consider the site a settlement with semi-permanent structures, shops and businesses much like any large village.
However, the relatively high standards at Krisan provide little consolation for many of the camp’s refugees.
« People are discouraged, they are fed up, » Franskkgav Freejust, one of the camp’s leaders told IRIN from his hide-out « somewhere in the bush », adding that refugees want to move on from years of uncertainty.
« People are fighting for the future. »