The Stateless Refugees


Recently, Kristin left a comment asking this
This is probably a really dumb question but I am wondering why a lot of refugees do not want to become citizens of Ghana? It sounds like a lot of them want to go to an alternate country. Why would that be? It is clear that they don’t want to have to pay taxes but they will have to pay taxes wherever they end up! Is there another reason that I am unaware of? To me, I would think they would want to stay there and actually become part of the Ghanaian community after having lived there for so many years…”

First of all, it’s definitely not a dumb question, and it touches on one of the most difficult – yet crucially important – dimensions of refugee issues.

Before delving into a long winded explanation, let me answer her question very directly:

Liberian refugees already pay taxes – those “hidden” taxes such as VAT or excise duties collected on gas, tobacoo and alcohol. Do they benefit from Ghanaian public aid or social services? No – there are not eligible. I dont believe Ghana has an income tax – a lot of developing nations do not have that kind of tax. In any case, refugees would love to become integrated into Ghanain society, if they thought that was a possibility. Most refugees want to be resettled abroad – they call it “travelling”. A lot of people are convinced they will “travel” and life will be better then – except that countries like the US, Norway and Australia, which have already accepted a number of refugees, are no longer carrying out resettlement programs – a reality which refugees simply do not accept or believe (The UNHCR Global Appeal – mentionned below – makes note of this problem). In any case, as I explain below, none of the different options available to these refugees offer a simple, realistic solution.


In protracted refugee situations – like the one in Buduburam – where the country of origin is no longer at war, and where people should, in theory, relinquish their refugee status and return home, dynamics at play often warp this seemingly simple reality.

It’s not a matter of “let’s pack our bags and go home, the war is over”. For those who have been away from Liberia for a decade, “home” is a hazy concept. “Home” stopped existing when their sister/mother/wife/daughter was raped and killed before their eyes in their home – you don’t return to that kind of home. Nonetheless, the UNHCR, as well as the Liberian and Ghanaian governments (but all for different reasons) are very eager for the Liberian refugees to leave Ghana and return to their country.

The UNHCR 2008-2009 Global Appeal
document discusses future options for refugees. First of all, it grossly underestimates the number of refugees living in Buduburam. They talk about 40,000 refugees in Ghana, and 24,000 Liberians in Buduburam. These numbers are based on the results produced by the “verification exercise” that the UNHCR carried out in January 2007, an exercise rife with irregularities. Many refugees are not registered with the UNHCR, and aren’t counted; some use a friend’s ID card to register; others have more than one ID card. I personally met dozens of people who were not being counted, because they are not “officially” refugees – UNHCR seems to have stopped giving refugee status to people fleeing their country at some point. There is no way to know – but a lot of people suggest there is in fact at least twice the official number of registered refugees living in Buduburam.

The stated goals of the 2007 UNHCR Global Appeal are laudable – to repatriate as many willing/capable Liberians to their country, and, in turn, to focus on self-reliance initiatives starting in August 2007, when the last voluntary repatriation took place. Programs meant to increase the self-reliance of refugees and to integrate them into Ghanaian society have been enshrined as the main objective for UNHCR in their 2008-2009 Global Appeal. Unfortunately, this strategy is misguided, for the simple reason that the reality of the situation is such that these goals are, I believe, unachievable.

While the rationale for voluntary repatriation is perfectly logical and, in the long run, the only viable solution for war displaced people, it seems that taking the reality of the situation is not being taken into account at an institutional level, and that arbitrary decisions are being made on behalf of a heterogeneous group of people. A number of people on camp left Liberia over 15 years ago, following the first civil war in 1989, and have never returned to Liberia. Others came at that time, returned to Liberia in the mid-90s, only to be subjected to a new round of violent conflict, forcing them to seek refuge again between 2003 and 2005.

In July 2006, “high-level” Liberian officials visited Buduburam, as part of the UNHCR effort to convince people to move back to Liberia:

“Accompanied by UNHCR representatives, the delegates held open meetings with members of the two refugee communities in the hope of persuading undecided Liberians to return home and contribute to national reconstruction. They said they were impressed by the wide range of skills and expertise many of the refugees had picked up.

The main concerns of the refugees, some of whom had not been home in 16 years, included shelter and employment opportunities. Johnson told refugees in Buduburam about democratic progress in Liberia, including the election last year of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, adding that lack of teachers, health-care workers and construction crews was a great opportunity for the skilled refugees. “If Her Excellency the president is making an appeal for you to come back home, she is doing it against the background that when you return, there are measures in place to absorb you. Obviously, if there isn’t, you’ll be idle and there’ll be trouble and she doesn’t want trouble,” the minister said last Thursday.”

If the lack of teachers and health workers is a “great opportunity” for the Liberian refugees, perhaps it helps explain their unwillingness to return – to construe this lack of capacity and services as an “opportunity” borders on hypocrisy. Furthermore, can Buduburam residents be blamed for doubting the guarantee of “absorption measures”, in a country that is struggling to provide basic necessities to its population?

Understandably, the refugees have serious doubts as to whether returning to Liberia only 3 years after “peace” has been declared, only 2 years after legitimate elections occurred, is what is best for them. Many of the refugees still have relatives or friends in Liberia, who they are in touch with, and it seems that the general consensus is that while they ultimately would like to go back to Liberia, they do not want to back now. The most common answer when asked is, “oh, perhaps in 2 or 3 years.” Clearly, this attitude can be perpetuated, and every year, refugees can push back the date that they wish to go back to Liberia.

But while conditions in Liberia have certainly improved, there are still nearly 15,000 peacekeepers, the new police and army forces are only just being organized, electricity has just been brought to Monrovia (and remains unaffordable or unavailable for most), official unemployment is 85%, and 80% of the population live below the poverty line. To bring the country back on its feet, “Ellen” – as the President is universally referred to – only had an annual budget of $129 million last year.

Of course, individual perceptions cannot all be taken into account by the UNHCR and other relevant authorities, but it seems that enforcing a universal voluntary repatriation program in conjunction with an end to aid, is not the solution to ensure that the camp’s inhabitants will all return to Liberia, because they will not. Many see that the $5/person, the bag of rice, blanket, gallon of oil and other provisions are by no means sufficient for them to return to their home and start a new life – and who can blame them? First of all, their home, their village may have been wiped out, leaving them – very literally – homeless. Secondly, as stated above, considering the enormous challenges that the Liberian authorities are faced with in terms of provision of public goods, it is hardly surprising that most do not want to go back. The paradox is that while water and electricity are unaffordable to a lot of people on camp – an unacceptable, unsustainable situation – at least the supply of these goods exists, which is not necessarily the case in their home region. Similarly, while the situation on camp is rife with hardship and struggle, many feel that repatriating to Liberia will only worsen their current situation, which has the merit of being predictable, and which they are now “used to.”

Economic opportunities in and around the camp are more or less inexistent. While Ghanaians themselves are already struggling to meet their needs, it seems that Ghana will have a hard time providing opportunities for development for the Liberian community. The business venture providing water in the camp relies on Liberians for distribution, and a number of people sell water to generate income. But how many refugees can sell water before the market is saturated, before supply overtakes demand, and all the people living on water revenue re-enter the cycle of poverty?

In its 2007 Global Appeal, the UNHCR notes that voluntary repatriation efforts will be phased out by June 2007, and that the Ghanaian government has “indicated it may consider local integration when the number of refugees has been significantly reduced That the government of Ghana has “indicated” it “may consider local integration” does not by any stretch of the imagination suggest that the government of Ghana is in fact seriously planning on “local integration efforts.” From my conversations with many people on camp, discrimination against Liberians in Ghana is rampant. Ghana itself has a huge unemployment problem to deal with, and the idea that its economy can absorb over 40,000 people is not realistic. The last time citizenship was granted to a Liberian refugee was in the 1990s. For ANY government to be expected to take charge for such a significant amount of refugees is unrealistic.

In the 2008-2009 Global Appeal, the UNHCR suggests it will work with the Ghanaian government to insure local integration takes place, and that the camp structures become the responsibility of the local authorities. Ha! Seriously. And – to top it off – they will spend a whole $20,000 on “income generation programs”. $20,000? That’s less than The Niapele Project’s annual budget. Give. me. a. break.

Essentially, while the concerted effort by the UNHCR, the Governments of Liberia and Ghana and all other relevant authorities to essentially put a term to the refugee situation in Ghana is by all means necessary, in the short and medium term, the reality is that these policies are in fact hurting the refugees. The desire to restore their human dignity by allowing the refugees to become self-reliant and independent should be the ultimate goal, but not at the expense of these people’s livelihoods. The reduction – and ultimately the disappearance – of international aid will probably not be replaced by governmental social services, and refugees who will no longer be refugees but not Ghanaian either – stateless people – will be left to their own devices.

2 thoughts on “The Stateless Refugees

  1. Wow! Thanks for such a thorough answer! I have a much better understanding now. I did not realize that they were not very serious about local integration but you are right-with 40,000 people, that is not even realistic, especially with the poverty and unemployment rates that Ghanaian citizens already face. Also, I was not aware that discrimination was rampant!

    I remember seeing notices posted in camp about UNHCR stopping funding and no longer assisting in repatriation costs after a certian date and I remember wondering then what would happen to those who chose to stay anyway. If I were them, I would feel very ‘stuck’, as I don’t know that I would be able to go back to a place that has caused me such grief, anguish and horrible memories. It is not as though it has been a stable country for all that long now and I would be very hesitant to trust the government when they say that they will absorb the people coming back and that things are stable now. I don’t know…very tough place to be in!

    Thanks for all the info.

  2. I also meant to ask you…What is your opinion on those who had been sent to Michigan (for example) and have made a life for themselves there and now they are being told that they have to go back “home” since things are ok in Liberia now. Should they be made to leave the states or should they be allowed to stay where they have re-established themselves? Is it fair for them to have to start all over again for the 2nd or 3rd time?

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