N.G.O.'s and Concerned Individuals Form Grassroots Campaign to Safeguard Human Rights of Refugees in Ghana

Liberian refugee women hold protest. (Photo courtesy of Equality Trumpet)

Six hundred Liberian refugee women and children are currently detained in Ghana and face imminent deportation. Their crime? Free speech. The women had been holding a peaceful protest in the Buduburam refugee settlement, and, on Monday, March 17, in the early hours, a police force armed with AK-47s and tear gas came to arrest them while they were sleeping on the football field.

The media has been rife with inaccurate and contradictory reports, making a clear assessment of the situation confusing at best. Neither the government of Ghana nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appears to consider the safety and long-term wellbeing of the refugees as a priority.

In response, a group of concerned N.G.O.'s and individuals has organized to call for international attention and the protection of the human rights of refugees in Ghana. To achieve these goals, they have created a petition to show support for the refugees of Buduburam.  (See "Petition to Safeguard the Rights of Refugees in Ghana.")

The sponsors of the petition all have organizations or relationships within the community of Buduburam, and they have been following the situation closely via firsthand reports and independent investigation.

The Buduburam refugee settlement in Ghana, established by the UNHCR in 1990, has been a safe haven for Liberians and other Africans fleeing from civil war in their native countries. It is home to approximately 27,000 Liberians and thousands of others from countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Life in exile has not been easy for anyone in this community. They struggle to create a secure life for themselves in Ghana while clinging to their cultural identity. Facing minimal assistance from international agencies, the refugees have had to provide their own housing, food, schooling, medical care, and livelihoods. Only some of the most vulnerable individuals (predominately the elderly and handicapped) benefit from food distribution programs.

Despite hardships, they have persevered; new generations of Liberians have been born in Ghana, making it the only home that many have ever known. Now the people of Buduburam are at a crossroads, facing a complete pull out of UNHCR services and a revocation of their legal status, leaving their future unknown.

(Photo courtesy of Equality Trumpet)

The war in Liberia has ended and thousands of nationals have returned to their country to rebuild. However, some are too traumatized by the horrors experienced during the war and returning seems inconceivable. Many others eagerly await the right opportunity to return to their homeland but currently lack the means to leave behind what little they have provided for themselves in their country of refuge only to return to nothing and begin yet again.

While considered a nation at peace since the official end of the war in 2003, Liberia remains both fragile and destitute. In addition to the destroyed infrastructure and alarming lack of health care, Liberia has shocking rates of crime and unemployment. According to the Aug. 8, 2007, report by the United Nations secretary general on the mission in Liberia,

The most immediate threats to sustained peace and stability in Liberia at this stage include increasing violent criminal activities, especially armed robbery and rape; the limited capacity of the security sector to curb violent crime; the weak justice system; the limited capacity of key national institutions to deliver on the promised peace dividend; the proliferation of disaffected groups such as unemployed ex-combatants, deactivated soldiers and police personnel, and elements from the dismantled irregular militias; economic insecurity, in particular youth unemployment; resurfacing ethnic and social cleavages; and the perception by some that the government is not genuinely pursuing national reconciliation.

The article "Nutritional Crisis in Liberia: Malnutrition Rates Spike in Monrovia" posted on March 19, 2008, at ReliefWeb discusses the challenges faced by Action Against Hunger's campaigns in the country:

"The consequences of 14 years of war and conflict have ruined the country and its basic facilities … 'The populations have left the refugee camps to move back to the city hoping for a better quality of life, but they now find themselves confronted by mass urban poverty,' explains Ms. Stien Gilsel, A.C.F.'s [Action Against Hunger's] lead nutritionist overseeing the survey in February."

Integration into Ghanaian society also poses myriad challenges for this community. While coexistence between Liberians and Ghanaians has been mostly peaceful, there has been a history of animosity between the refugees and the citizens of Ghana. Refugees cannot work in Ghana, their children cannot attend Ghanaian schools, and they have faced harassment both on camp and off.

In addition to facing discrimination, some of the refugees feel there is not enough security or justice provided by the Ghanaian authorities on behalf of the Liberian community. Equality Trumpet quotes Decontee Tarlue, a spokesperson for the protesting refugees:

"In 2001, refugees were stabbed daily at nights by unknown men believed to be Ghanaians for a couple of months until a Ghanaian male suspect was caught with a sharp iron rod in the act."

The suspect was later released. The same article also describes a 2002 besiegement of the camp by military men. Most tellingly, a press release by Interior Minister Kwamena Bartels of Ghana, dated March 11, 2008, states,

"The government has not taken any decision to locally integrate the Liberian refugees and neither does it have any intention of doing so."

It is no wonder that the Liberian population frequently feels unwelcome in Ghana.

In light of the lack of options, a group of women formed the organization "Liberian Refugee Women for Refugee Concerns" and began a peaceful protest to call for additional assistance from the UNHCR as they prepare to cope with transition.

Beginning Feb. 19, 2008, several hundred Liberian women, including the young, single mothers, and the elderly, convened at the football field on camp, sitting day and night, waiting for recognition. The government of Ghana warned them to cease, but they persisted.

A press release from the UNHCR in Accra titled "U.N. Condemns Disturbances at Buduburam Refugee Settlement" accuses the protest participants of manipulating and intimidating other refugees to procure their involvement. But video posted at YouTube titled "Buduburam Woman's Protest" clearly shows hundreds of woman standing together in solidarity.

The total population of Buduburam camp is 40,000 people, according to estimates. It is unlikely that a group of a few hundred protesting women could prevent thousands of hungry refugees from going about their daily routines if they were in disagreement. The article "Women Protest Settlement in Ghana" at Buduburam Diaries, a blog maintained by "journalists living on the Liberian refugee camp at Buduburam," describes the following:

"The peaceful demonstration exercise is characterized by group gathering at the entrance of the camp in a field under the scorching sun at day and sleeping in the dews at night, fasting and praying, and boycotting even the UNHCR/W.F.P. [World Food Program] ration distribution of maize and oil."

(Photo courtesy of Equality Trumpet)

All firsthand accounts of the protest differ dramatically from the statements of the Interior Minister Bartels and the UNHCR representative in Ghana Aida Haile Mariam. Mariam stated,

"It is unfortunate that the people who today appreciate the value of education are the same people who are now preventing children from going to school."

However, her sense of distress at the situation did not lend itself to a commitment for resolution. While it is true that schools are not open on camp during the protests, it should be noted that the refugees are responsible for building, staffing, supplying, and maintaining their own schools. So strong are the women in their convictions, they believe that the suspension of the schools they struggled to create would be worth any gains in their quality of life for the long term—in spite of the obvious concerns it raises over the continuity of their children's education. In the article "Liberian Refugees Asked to Obey Laws of Ghana or…" posted at GhanaHomePage (Ghanaweb.com) on March 11, Bartels laments that

"Ghana was good enough for them when their country was at war and they needed a place where they can have peace and protection and Ghana is not good for them when the war in their country was over … This shows their crass ingratitude to a country that has protected them, fed them, and given their children a free education."

Bartels does not go on to specify which country the second part of his statement refers to, since those services were never provided to the refugees by Ghana.

The UNHCR, the government of Ghana, and the protesting refugees were unable to reach a compromise. Therefore, the peaceful protesters extended their demonstration into the fourth week. Then, on March 17, before dawn, the Ghanaian authorities arrived en masse to arrest over 600 of these women and children.

Confronted by the heavily armed police, the women cooperatively boarded the buses and now sit imprisoned while their fate hangs in the balance. Reports that they face deportation without any due process prevail. Many of them have children who now wait alone on the camp for their mothers' return. Some of the arrested children are not with their mothers.

The article "Scorpions Set on Refugees" dated March 20 (the fourth full day of their detainment) and posted at Myjoyonline.com, an online news portal, describes the deplorable conditions where the women and children are held. Reports of miscarriages, scorpion bites, and diarrhea are coming from the detainment center. Fears for these women and children are growing.

As the situation unfolds, there is limited thorough and objective coverage of the crisis in the media. Many reports only tell the side of the Ghanaian authorities and some contain complete lies, such as the women being naked! A BBC article posted at 10:20 a.m. on March 18 was originally titled "Naked Liberians to Be Sent Home." The article quotes Interior Minister Bartels: "When women strip themselves naked and stand by a major highway that is not a peaceful protest." While Bartels may have succeeded in demeaning the refugee women, no photographs or eyewitness reports have been produced to corroborate his claims of nudity. By the end of the same day, the BBC changed the title of the article to "Ghana to Expel Female Protesters" and carefully added that the women were "accused by a minister of holding naked protests."

As the Ghanaian government continues to defend their actions, the UNHCR representative in Ghana reports, in an interview with BBC Africa, that she "would like to see the due process respected before deportation." In addition, Mariam "blames the leaders [of the refugee protests] for disruption." Even if the UNHCR does not feel a responsibility for these events, its "primary purpose," as indicated on its Web site, "is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees." It seems reasonable to expect the UNHCR to step up in order to fulfill their core mandate.

Meanwhile, tensions on camp continue to rise as those left behind worry about their mother, daughters and sisters, and then, themselves. The future for all refugees at Buduburam is uncertain.

As a response to this crisis, a coalition of N.G.O.'s and individuals who currently work or have worked in Buduburam have started an online petition calling for the upholding of refugee rights in Ghana. This petition urges an immediate and peaceful end to the crisis and long-term solutions negotiated by all groups involved, for all groups involved. Most urgently, the government of Ghana must immediately release the unconscionably detained women and children.

The primary groups involved in the creation of the petition are, The Niapele Project, which serves vulnerable children at Buduburam, Nuch's Fund which provides free healthcare to the children of one of the camp's schools, and White Tara Productions, (www.whitetara.org) an independent production company specializing in documentaries on social and development-related issues.

It is clear by the immediate volume of signatures received and supportive comments posted that there are people concerned with this issue all over the world. As of the posting of this article, there are 1,600 signatories and gaining. The aim is to gather these voices of support in a coordinated effort to call attention to the plight of the refugees in Ghana. For further coverage of these events and information on the initiative to resolve it, please see The Niapele Project.

As history has proven, a threat to human rights anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere. The resolution of this situation will directly affect the thousands of refugees in Ghana, and could serve as a precedent for solutions in protracted refugee situations around the globe.

Please sign the petition and help to amplify the voice of these vulnerable women and children!

Megan Sullivan, Buffalo, N.Y., is an international volunteer (Spring 2007) with the Liberian N.G.O. Children Better Way at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

Penelope Chester, Paris, France, is cofounder and director of The Niapele Project, an N.G.O. at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.