Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 1

Rather, stuck between rockS and a hard place. Liberian refugees in West Africa have 3 – and only 3 – options available to them.

They can either:

  • go back to Liberia, although no longer through UNHCR, which has ended voluntary repatriation programs.
  • hope for resettlement in a Western country
  • stay where they are, ultimately lose their refugee status, and hope to become integrated into the local community

Now, my fabulous co-director Celina attracted my attention to a couple of news reports concerning the fate of ex-refugees – in Liberia and in the United States. This subject is both very interesting and quite important – it really begs the question: how should countries, international organizations, and civil society deal with protracted refugee crises? There is no set framework for dealing with these, particularly as refugee crises are sui generis and it would be difficult to develop a “one size fits all” model to work with.

My expertise is circumscribed to the Liberian refugee crisis, and I will not attempt to generalize at this point – below, I will simply try to unravel the different possibilities available to displaced Liberians, and indeed show how they are stuck between a rock, another rock, and a hard place.


The first possibility mentionned above, which is to repatriate to Liberia, seems like the most practical, sustainable solution. Indeed, as highlighted in the media, donor money is being channeled to reconstruction efforts in Liberia, and away from displaced communities – this is supposed to be seen as an incentive to go back to Liberia. With the withdrawal of UNHCR looming, it seems that going back to their country of origin is THE viable solution for refugees.

I highly recommend listening to this report entitled “Liberia repatriation dilemma” (4:45 min – you might need to use Internet Explorer, it doesn’t seem to work in Firefox for me)

According to this report, things are “fine” in Liberia. “Very fine”, as Liberians are fond of saying. But let’s look at some facts:

“[Raped?] Seek free treatment now at Benson Clinic,” reads another [sign]. It is run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

With a queue outside her door, the head nurse told me that five to 10 people arrive there every day but half of them are not women. They are young girls between five and 12 years old.

And it gets worse.

Each month the clinic treats several babies for rape but, from all the cases that have been recorded by the clinic since 2003, you can count the number of men convicted on one hand.”

“Liberia had just emerged from 14 years of civil war, during which time women and girls experienced unprecedented levels of sexual violence, with 3 in 4 women in some regions, having been raped. But evidence suggests that violence against women remains an extensive problem during this post-conflict era. “

“One of Liberia’s most notorious rebel commanders, known as Gen. Butt Naked for charging into battle wearing only boots, has returned to confess his role in terrorizing the nation, saying he is responsible for 20,000 deaths.

Joshua Milton Blahyi, who now lives in Ghana, returned last week to face his homeland’s truth and reconciliation commission, this time wearing a suit and tie. His nom de guerre is derived from his platoon’s practice of charging naked into battle, a technique meant to terrify the enemy […]

Before he led his fighters into battle, wearing only a pair of lace-up boots, Blahyi said he made a human sacrifice to the devil.

The sacrifice was typically “the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart which was divided into pieces for us to eat,” he told The Associated Press on Saturday.”

Now, the IHT article does discuss the fact that a war crimes tribunal, rather than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems more appropriate for Liberia. There are hundreds of guilty war criminals roaming the streets of Liberia. In any case, the issue of justice and reconciliation has not yet found a satisfactory resolution, and, understandably, many Liberian refugees fear that they will face more violence, more retributions and more horror if they go home, knowing that a lot of those responsible for previous atrocities are free.

(General Butt Naked lived in Buduburam, where he preached. Yes, as the IHT article notes, he became a born-again Christian, and now has a congregation to whom he preaches. I knew he was on camp, and was tempted to go see one of his sermons, but decided against – I thought this might have been too emotionally taxing. One of the missionaries I met in Buduburam told me that he saw General Butt Naked weeping on his hands and knees, begging two brothers whose other brother he had massacred for forgiveness.)

I am trying to show here that there are a lot of psychological factors, as well as material ones, that make repatriation to Liberia very difficult for those who have been displaced. It’s not a matter of picking up their things and just “going”. It’s unfortunate that this is not taken into consideration by any responsible authorities dealing with repatriation efforts.

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