Mano River Report: Response from the international community

DFID's Principles for a New Humanitarianism: "(... ) We will seek to promote a more universal approach in addressing humanitarian needs. People in need - wherever they are- should have equal status and rights to assistance. (... ) We will be impartial - our help will seek to relieve civilians' suffering without discrimination on political or other grounds, with priority given to the most urgent cases of distress."
The international community has all of this information, and has been updated regularly on the humanitarian situation in the country for years. Yet still, the amount of emergency funding available (not development money) from the main donor agencies for Liberia remains largely insufficient. The reasons behind this are linked to the international community's political positioning (most notably the US and the UK) toward the Government of Liberia. President Charles Taylor has been blamed repeatedly for supporting anti-government elements from both Guinea and Sierra Leone and with the massive, and very expensive Peace Process taking place in Sierra Leone. Accusations that RUF is being supported by Taylor have culminated in the UN Security Council imposing sanctions on Liberia in May 2001. This at the same time that as the humanitarian needs were increasing due to the intensification of the fighting. The political agenda of the international community is clearly influencing their funding policies for humanitarian programs. As a result, the poorest of the poor today in Liberia are the IDPs. For these people, after having walked for months, fleeing conflict and persecution, passing through a series of displaced camps seeking refuge, there are not always people and services to help them. With continuously negative responses to applications for emergency funding, many organizations do not have adequate funds to provide assistance to the IDPs. "The result of this decline has been a rapid fall in the capacity of aid agencies to provide the needed assistance. For example: (a) Action Aid, whose funding for rural agriculture development was delayed so long that the program was not able to start during the planting season of 2001; (b) Save the Children which is now scaling back its support from 19 to 10 health clinics ... For some ... organizations, the funding shortfalls are so great that they are considering the termination of their assistance programmes in Liberia. Given the absence of alternative social safety nets for a lot of Liberians, this would ... greatly affect their welfare." These warnings and pleas have not changed the attitudes of the donor governments, which continue to label Liberia as a country with a corrupt government, and a country with no emergency humanitarian needs. At times, the concerns of NGOs seem to be treated as almost juvenile, as illustrated by this OFDA comment: "The team also felt that there was a sense of nostalgia from some organizations and the Government of Liberia for years gone by when the international community pumped in large sums of money for Liberia." It is difficult to believe that the policies of the international community seen in Liberia are based on humanitarian needs, or a true understanding of the repeated violence and hardship that these populations have been subjected to. But humanitarian money, by definition, is not supposed to be conditioned by political positions. It does not make sense then that the displaced people in Sierra Leone, for example, were considered worthy of funding from DFID (the British government disaster fund), but those in Liberia are not. Take also the case of Guinea where the U.S. Ambassador declared the country a "disaster" in November 2001 - the label needed in order for a country to be eligible for emergency humanitarian funding (from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance; OFDA). On January 14, 2002, a Situation Report written by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bureau for Humanitarian Response (BHR) and OFDA stated: "Since October 1, the security situation in Guinea has remained stable. However fighting in Liberia near the Guinea border and the presence of Government of Guinea troops has resulted in the tenuous resettlement of the IDPs to the area ... relief agencies continue to provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs as well as refugees, throughout Guinea ... the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea, Barrie R. Walkley, re-declared a disaster for the ongoing complex emergency in Guinea." As of May 2002, Liberia was still not considered a disaster and at the same time, UN sanctions were re-instated, leading to serious confusion between political and humanitarian agendas of the donor countries. Non-governmental agencies that have been requesting emergency funding for programs to support the IDPs since 2001, continue to have very little success. "The team concluded that the current situation in Bong County, involving up to 30,000 IDPs ... in no way constituted a 'disaster' as defined by OFDA mandate. The assessment further concluded that the current situation was manageable, and was well within the resources and capabilities of the Government of Liberia, and relevant international organizations on the ground, to handle." When this point is raised with representatives from various donor governments, they usually state there is no need for emergency funds at the moment. "The UN Resident Representative expressed his concern over the lack of funding from donors for Liberia. This was also expressed by other UN agencies. Most of the discussion was centered on whether this was indeed a crisis that OFDA should respond to ... The team believes that OFDA funds are not needed at this point. The INGOs and the UN have used their own resources to respond to the crisis ... The INGOs are all concerned about not having enough resources to maintain the camps should this crisis persist for some time." By making a direct link between the decisions to provide funding and political policies toward the government in Liberia is also a way of punishing the displaced people for the politics of their president. Following a recent visit to Liberia, OFDA representatives explained their position by saying: "The American Ambassador has not issued a disaster declaration, in part because he wants to avoid providing Taylor with more resources to loot" The advice given to NGOs concerned about this funding policy was for : "... NGOs to continue to support populations around the IDP concentrations and that they coordinate better among themselves." But it is not only the IDPs right to material assistance that awaits recognition of this war, it is also their right to protection. "While it has been possible to bring material assistance to displaced people, it has become appallingly clear that they are not receiving international protection. The reason for this is two-fold. The term 'internally displaced person' (IDP) is sometimes intentionally used to avoid recognizing people as victims of war." By not recognizing the consequences of the war in Liberia, the status and protection of the IDPs in Liberia is limited. "In peacetime, care of the displaced ... is governed only by the rules of national solidarity and international cooperation. Protection is left to national authorities ... Displaced remain under the law and authority of their own country and can only demand the respect of their most basic human rights." For people who are fleeing killings and violence, often perpetrated by pro-government forces, the responsibility for their rights and protection falls on the shoulders of their government. It is disquieting then to read a report from OFDA in June 2001 already stating that, "It is clear that the Government of Liberia has not been able to respond to the IDP crisis ... " Amnesty International has also highlighted the problem of protection of these people due to this situation. "Additionally, the government has shown no resolve to protect civilians, especially where international agencies are not present due to both security concerns and due to lack of sufficient donor funding to carry out their work." Even different UN agencies raised their fears in Security Council meetings in July and August 2001, explaining that they were concerned with the lack of resources for humanitarian UN and NGO programs. Without additional funding and resources for emergency programs, they said, there would be no more access, and therefore no more protection for the people, regardless of the security situation. Funding is even a problem for those Liberians who are refugees in Sierra Leone. In discussions with Refugees International, one UN staff member explained: "There is a big discrepancy in assistance to Liberians and Sierra Leoneans. There's just no support for Liberian refugees." The problems of protection that the refugees and displaced of Liberia face today are not unknown. In fact to the contrary, UNHCR has provided clear and detailed descriptions of such problems: "The situation in Sierra Leone and the two other countries of the Mano River Union (Guinea and Sierra Leone) is intertwined. Numerous and various accusations have been made by and against these countries' leaders regarding their responsibility for the turmoil that has characterized the sub-region over the last decade. "Similar sentiments have been expressed by nationals of the different countries vis-Ã? -vis refugees, who despite fearing for their security in their own country and fleeing in search for asylum, have been blamed for the spreading wars. This has made the provision of international protection even more challenging, since the rights of refugees have been ignored to protect national security interests. "As wars and hostile refugee sentiments have spread, finding refuge has also become increasingly difficult ... Linked to these security situations and competing political agendas are the serious violations of human rights being committed by rebel and government forces. Laws are frequently suspended or altered in the name of national security and or manipulated for political reasons." In Koindu, Sierra Leone, there is a makeshift camp that has been built by the refugees themselves, on a site located for them by the local authorities (RUF at the time). Many have also moved into the surrounding community. Only recently did they find out that they would not be staying. During the first week of April, the police visited the camp. Refugee man age 38 Left Lofa April 2001 "They told us that this is not a recognized camp, that we will not get any protection from anyone while we stay here, and if there are any cross border security problems the refugees will be blamed. They also told us to go and inform all the refugees who are staying in the surrounding villages that all Liberians have to move out of the area. "This has scared us and so the next day when the UNHCR came we all registered to leave in two weeks time, but we want to leave earlier. Because just yesterday the police came back to ask us how many people had left, how many were in the camp and how many [Liberians] were in the villages. "We don't want to go to the camps because we are settled here, we all speak the same language and the farms are now ready to be planted. We are also close to our homes so we can go back quickly if things get better. Even some of the local people are sad to see us go because we are friends and family. I am also afraid that once we leave this area the Liberians will stop crossing into Koindu because they will know that they are not welcome." But the UN sees this as voluntary relocation. In a press release dated May 2, 2002, they explained: "The number of Liberian refugees presenting themselves for relocation within Sierra Leone had increased recently following a mass information campaign by UNHCR ... Last week alone, UNHCR said, it relocated 1,400 Liberians from Kailahun District ... to camps in the Bo Districts ... This number represents a sharp rise ... from the previous count of between 400 and 800 per week..." The Liberian refugees who have been moved to these official camps are facing basic security problems. In general, the Liberians are not welcome in Sierra Leone as they are still seen as the cause for the start of the war. When the Sierra Leonean returnees in the camps were asked if they saw any problems with the Liberians coming into the same camps, they said that there would be no problem as long as the had their own area in the camp and they were "watched closely". Even the Sierra Leonean staff of some NGOs described these refugees as "hostile, cheaters and fabricators". The fact that their arrival into Sierra Leone falls just before the elections does not help matters, as a Liberian refugee explains: "Sierra Leoneans think we are children of Taylor ... We are living here in fear. We do expect something bad to happen." Unfortunately, as of the beginning of May, they had not seen any protection officers, or people trying to sensitize the host communities about the situation of the Liberian refugees.