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Refugees in Liberia


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THE “INVISIBLE” REFUGEES IN LIBERIA

I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35)

n 21st September 2004 I came to Liberia from the Ivory Coast by a small, well-worn Ukrainian plane. Words on the faded, splintering sign on the way to the capital city of Monrovia read like a broken promise: Welcome to Liberia. The Love of Liberty brought us here. The fourteen-year civil war has devastated the country. There is no electricity and no running water. The Post Office has not been working since the outbreak of the civil war at Christmas 1989. There is no land phone network all over the country. The Liberian crises has led to the displacement of nearly a million people in a country with a population of 3.3 million. Up to 300,000 Liberians currently seek refuge in neighbouring countries. It seems that after having spent several years in a peaceful, democratic and economically stable Botswana, my new missionary assignment to work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Liberia is more challenging.

JRS in Liberia

JRS has been working with the internally displaced people (IDP) in Liberia since 1992 in very difficult circumstances. The first JRS team working in this country was forced to flee the country in 1994 due to the civil war. Four years later, in the aftermath of much peaceful climate after the democratic election in 1997, the JRS team came back along with the refugees they had accompanied in exile in Ivory Coast and Guinea. At the end of May 2002 a new civil war broke out again in Liberia to overthrow President Charles Taylor elected five years earlier. The new skirmishes provoked a large increase in the number of Liberian refugees crossing the borders into Ivory Coast and Guinea. Many of the refugees that JRS had accompanied back to Liberia in 1998 were once displaced or fled once more to the Ivory Coast and Guinea.

Towards the end of 2002, at the invitation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees JRS became involved with the newly arrived refugees in Lainé refugee camp, in the south of Guinea. In Liberia itself, JRS’ most recent project began in August 2002. In April 2003, a small team started to put the foundation of an education project aimed at providing the schooling to around 3,600 displaced children in the camps of Montserrado county, on the outskirts of the capital city, Monrovia. The project was put on hold due to the intense fighting during June and July 2003.

IDP camps

Liberia’s post-conflict terrain is characterized by a large number of IDPs, who in most cases live in makeshift, temporary and decrepit shelters, deprived of even the most basic, life-sustaining amenities. In August 2003, after Taylor’s resignation from the presidency and the installation of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, JRS re-established several projects in the camps of Montserrado and Bong counties (Salala), sheltering almost 200,000 IDPs. A seven-person JRS team has been engaged in education, vocational trainings and pastoral programmes. There are 3 Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) among the JRS team: Br Marek Wojtaś from the Irish Province who jointed the JRS Liberia in January 2004, Br Yakobus Too from the Australian Province and Fr Jacek Gniadek from the Botswana Province who came to Liberia in September 2004.

The aim of the education project is to help to provide a sense of stability and “normality” to the young displaced population through a formal system that is sorely lacking in the area. In the Salala area, 90 km from the capital city Monrovia, 11,000 students are being schooled by 300 teachers in JRS school. Last year, after several months of hard work by both the students and JRS project personnel, 2,800 Liberian IDPs in the camps of Montserrado and Bong counties received their graduation certificates in the following subjects: tailoring, carpentry, tie & dye, sewing, bakery, soap making, agriculture, blacksmith and masonry.

The Archdiocese of Monrovia and the Gbarnga Diocese have requested support from JRS to help to revive the education and pastoral structures. With an improved security situation making travel to the interior of country again possible and a slow but gradually progressive repatriation, JRS is making an assessment of potential action to set up small development projects in order to accompany and offer services to the returnees in their places of origin.

Forcibly displaced people

25 years ago, the plight of thousands of Vietnamese boat people moved Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe to such an extent that he established the JRS. There were 6 million refugees forced to flee their countries of origin and another 5 million who where internally displaced within their own countries in the 1980s. Today, while the number of refugees worldwide is dropping, there is a huge increase in those displaced within their countries of origin, in total of 45 million people.

These people have fled their homes for the same reasons as refugees, but because they have not actually crossed a national frontier, they are not considered as refugees. There is no special international organisation to protect and assist them. They remain under the law of their own governments, which in many cases have been responsible for uprooting them. As a result, many IDPs live in conditions of extreme insecurity and abject poverty. For humanitarian reasons IDPs should be considered as refugees in the same way as those formally recognised by the 1951 Convention because they are victims of the same type of violence. Today new initiatives to assist IDPs are urgently needed and desired.

Sign of the Time

Catholic social teaching uses the term refugee in a broader sense than the international law. The Church document, Refugees: A challenge to Solidarity (1992) applies the expression de facto refugee to the victims of armed conflicts and erroneous economic policy. Eighteen years ago John Paul II described the tragedy of refugees as “a wound that typifies and reveals the imbalance and conflicts of the modern world” (Encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 24). Theologically millions of IDPs are ‘signs of our times”. The Church calls us to reflect on the social and theological significance of these “strangers in our midst” (Octogesima Adveniens, 4). We are called to reflect prayerfully on what they, as contemporary expression of God’s “Word” say to us in and through their sufferings. In Liberia I have recognized in them the Saviour’s face.


Jacek Gniadek SVD
March 2005