Refugee camp a security threat
Ghana provides refuge for many West Africans. Since the Ivorian crisis began, more than 60,000 foreigners from neighbouring countries have used Ghana to transit. But the country’s source of worry lies with some of the 40,000-strong Liberian refugees at the Buduburam Camp, about 40km from the capital city, Accra. The camp, which was set up in 1990, originally catered for 8,000 Liberians who needed refuge from the ravaging war of Liberia at the time. Since then, it has grown to host a large number of Liberians and their dependants. Some returned home, but came back later to Ghana citing continued insecurity in their country. Since then, a lot of them have moved in to settle at the camp.
With it have come very dubious characters and activities. Of the 40,000 refugees in the camp, 4,000 are suspected to be ex-combatants who live among the genuine refugees. Reports indicate some even possess assault rifles and other deadly weapons. The camp has reportedly become a fertile ground for recruiting mercenaries for the battles in the sub-region because of the skills, weapons, the yearning for action and the spoils of war that the section of the community has.
At the peak of the Ivorian crisis, there were strong indications that both factions in the civil unrest - President Laurent Gbagbo and the rebels - had recruited fighters from the Budumburam camp. The camp also provides relative threats like drugs and sexual abuse and a recruitment ground for armed robbers, according to security sources.
The vices at the camp have attracted condemnation from the Ministry of Interior and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) over the past few years. Last year for instance, both the police chief and the Director-General of the Ghana Immigration Service (GIS) delivered a berating speech to the refugees and warned them against the vices being practised there.
Ghana’s President, John Kufuor, in a speech last month also made it clear that despite the country’s readiness to play host to refugees from war-torn countries in the sub-region, it will guard against any bad lot who would pose a threat to the country’s security.
Ghana’s fears are quite understandable. It does not want to be caught off-guard, judging from the goings-on in the sub-region. Fighting in Liberia has spilled over its borders into neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea and more recently into Cote d’Ivoire - home to thousands of Liberian refugees for more than a decade.
Late last month, a combined team of security personnel from the military and police conducted an exercise at the camp to flush out undesirable characters alleged to have infiltrated the camp for base objectives. The exercise was prompted by suspicions that a number of ex-combatants from some of the bestial and dastardly civil wars in the sub-region, particularly Liberia and Sierra Leone, had secretly relocated at the camp and were deploying their services in very negative forms.
During the swoop, a makeshift training ground was found in the camp. "Some of the refugees themselves confirmed to us that it was a training and meeting place for ex-combatants and those who are trying to recruit people for wars in neighbouring countries," says Brigadier Joseph Danquah, commander of the southern troops of the Ghana Armed Forces, who led the team.
The authorities were, however, unable to find the suspected recruiters. However, hundreds of unregistered adult males in the camp have been handed over to the immigration service for questioning.
A Liberian refugee, A.S. Kutubu, is unimpressed with the activities of some of his compatriots. He finds it disturbing that a minority is making life unbearable for the rest of them, to the extent that it is causing Ghanaians to lose their patience for Liberians.
Kutubu blames the armed banditry and thuggery being carried out at the camp to fighters and sympathisers of Charles Taylor’s former National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) fighters, who he says, are purporting to be refugees at the camp. "Their avowed aim is to create such a havoc that will lead to mass expulsion of refugees or for Liberians to be forcibly repatriated by the host government," says Kutubu.
Some serious politically motivated killings and robberies of some Liberian figures have been committed at the camp since the coming of the NPFL fighters, according to Kutubu. He blames the November 2001 killing of Gen. Alfred Glay, Aide-de-Camp to the late President Samuel Doe, on the ex-combatants. He says former student leader, Emmanuel Yakpazuo, was attacked and wounded by men believed to be Taylor’s paid agents. Yarkpazuo and 14 others were robbed in the course of the attack.
In 2001, 33-year-old, Augustine Samuel’s throat was cut while Thomas David, 20, was shot and critically wounded. Another victim, Nyabor Jobor, was shot in his neck on New Year Eve, but he survived. Kutubu contends that combatants who had infiltrated their ranks executed all these acts.
Following the recent swoop, Brigadier Danquah, has appealed to the government to shift the camp from where it is to an area, remote from the capital city. He has also warned the refugees not to engage in any criminal or illegal activities.
THE UNHCR, which has oversight responsibility over the camp, says it fully supports the action of the security agencies in ridding the camp of undesirables. It would therefore fully co-operate with the government to ensure the camp is not used as a ground for recruiting and training combatants to fight in war-torn countries.
"The UNHCR shares and fully appreciates the concerns of the security agencies and has already initiated programmes with the police to ensure that peace and tranquillity prevails in the camp," says the UNHCR Regional Resettlement Officer, Peter Trotter.
According to Trotter, it was the need to combat crime in the camp that motivated the UNHCR to assist in the establishment of a neighbourhood watch committee. The UNHCR also donated communication equipment to the police at the camp to enable them maintain law and order effectively. "Since these measures were instituted, the crime rate at the camp has drastically reduced," says Trotter.
In a related development, the UNHCR has stated that the entire refugee community is supportive of the operation by the security agencies. "Refugees, like all people, want to live in peace. Indeed, because refugees have been forced to flee violence, they welcome even more the safety that Ghana provides them," the statement noted.
For now, the Ghanaian authorities are unsure what their next move should be. They don’t want anyone to think their security concerns are a means to build a fortress in order to shove off refugees.
The UN Convention on refugees, to which Ghana is a signatory, provides that the repatriation of refugees to their home country should be done voluntarily. The implication here is that Ghana has an obligation to honour those conventions and grant all refugees, access to its territory.
But no one knows for sure how long the refugees would stay in Ghana. When a person’s status as a refugee has been determined, it is maintained unless he or she comes within the terms of one of the cessation clauses.
Over the past few years, the UNHCR has tried to encourage the Liberians to go back to their country but only a handful has responded to the gesture. Meanwhile, more of their compatriots have flocked in whilst a number of those who went home, have come back.
And with the recent escalation of unrest in Liberia, the tendency is that the Ghanaian authorities would have to put up with the Liberian refugees for a long time to come, but this time with an eagle eye over their activities at the Buduburam camp.