GHANA-LIBERIA: Cessation clause invoked over refugee demos

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ghana’s government has invoked a clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention to force the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to close operations for 26,000 Liberians in Ghana.

The move came after the Ministry of the Interior arrested 630 Liberians on 17 March, mostly female and child refugees, for holding a one-month protest which aid officials said obstructed food distributions in the Buduburam camp. UNHCR staff had reportedly been threatened by the protestors.

The protest started on 19 February with refugees delivering a petition to UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board saying they "strongly oppose" integration into Ghanaian society. The petition called for resettlement to a third country, or US$1,000 per person to help them return to Liberia - ten times the US$100 UNHCR was offering.

According to a statement from Ghana’s Ministry of the Interior statement, the refugees’ refusal to be integrated into Ghanaian society after some of them had spent 18 years in the country was "very insulting".

Ghanaian Minister of the Interior Kwamena Bartels said in the statement that the arrested Liberians, who are currently being held at a youth centre close to the refugee camp, would be stripped of their refugee status and forcibly deported to Liberia by the end of the week.

"The government will not countenance such unruly behaviour by refugees who have been given protection and hospitality in the country for 18 years," the Interior Ministry’s statement said.

The government invoked a clause in the 1951 Refugee Convention which states that when conditions have improved in a refugees’ country of origin then the host government is no longer obliged to host them.

UNHCR said it is still hoping the government will relent. “We are trying to say that maybe these 630 people committed unlawful acts [should] be prosecuted, but they should be differentiated from the other 25,000 refugees who have behaved properly without creating problems,” UNHCR spokesperson Cecille Pouilly told IRIN, adding that UNHCR had ruled out paying the refugees more than the US$100 offered.

A human rights group in Ghana has warned the government that it may be violating refugee law by having arrested the 630 demonstrators in the first place. "If they have broken the laws of Ghana then it's only the courts that can sanction them and not the interior ministry," said Edward Amuzu, the director of the Legal Resources Centre, a local non-governmental legal advocacy group.

Liberia’s government announced it is sending a high-level delegation on a five-day mission to Ghana.

A total of 42,034 Liberians were registered in Ghana in 2004, one year after the end of the 1989-2003 civil war in Liberia, according to UNHCR. Some 70 percent are from Liberia's Montserrado County, with the remainder mainly from Bong County, according to UNHCR.

Both counties have been declared safe by the Liberian government using indicators such as the level of social and economic infrastructure and the number of spontaneous returnees.

More than 850,000 Liberians fled the country during the brutal civil war. Some 100,000 have already been repatriated by UNHCR from around the West African region.