Refugee Protests Derailed in Ghana

Published: 1 Apr 2008

Volume 4, Issue 2

On February 19, Liberians in Buduburam refugee camp began a sit in protest. News reports and NGO accounts indicate that the protest was sparked by the introduction of a repatriation program. Refugees felt that the package being proposed by UNHCR was too little—and demanded more.  

Specifically, UNHCR’s spokeswomen in Geneva reported that the refugee protesters, primarily women, were demanding either resettlement in the West or a tenfold increase in the repatriation package—from US$100 to US$1,000. The refugees expressed their opposition to local integration.

The protest dragged on for nearly a month, and tensions between the government of Ghana, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the refugees grew. The refugees were accused of forcing the closure of camp schools, preventing the distribution of rations and stripping naked on the side of the road. The BBC reported that a press release issued by UNHCR in Ghana accused refugee women of intimidation and said that some of the protesters in the camp had been coerced. An aid worker in the camp who was asked to respond dismissed the claims as “laughable.”

On March 17, Ghanaian authorities finally moved to end the protest, arresting more than 600 protesters, primarily women and children. UNHCR was able to negotiate the release of 90 of the most vulnerable refugees on March 21. Authorities, however, returned to the camp the following day and reportedly arrested 70 men. On March 23, 16 Liberians were deported by the Ghanaian government, on the grounds that they were illegally present in the country and posed a national security threat. The next day, the UNHCR condemned the deportations and confirmed that 13 of the 16 were registered refugees.

At least one other refugee was reportedly released after the Legal Resources Centre and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative filed a court case challenging her detention for more than 40 hours without resource to the courts as illegal. Most recently, however, the South African Times reported that the Ghanaian High Court has paved the way for the deportation of 23 more ruling that they were not refugees.

The incident has brought some of the debates about refugee policy into focus.

Refugees and security

In reacting to the protests in Buduburam, the Ghanaian Minister of the Interior, Kwamena Bartels said, “”Our national security is supreme and shall not be compromised on any account.”

The idea that Liberians are a threat to national security is based on a long standing vision of Liberians as importing the violence of their homeland, and a criminal element, into Ghana. Crime has been a major concern in Buduburam, which has reportedly been the site of rape, petty theft, and armed robbery, as early as 1996. Local press accused refugees of “wreaking havoc in Ghana as the refugees perpetrate various heinous crimes, threatening the host country’s security.” Substantiated or not, reports claimed that many of the residents of Buduburam were not refugees, but rather combatants from Liberia’s civil war. In 2003, the Ghanaian military raided the camp, searching for rebel training facilities and weapons.

In response to these concerns, UNHCR implemented a security package which included funding for a refugee driven neighborhood watch program (See Jennifer Rumbach, “By the Grace of God: Insecurity and Empowerment in a West African Refugee Camp”). Until the implementation of this program, the settlement was particularly poorly policed, with only 5 police officers covering a population of 40,000 and fewer at night. Although this program reportedly made inroads, refugee protesters complained of insecurity in the camp, and discrimination by Ghanaian authorities, pointing to an incident where a Ghanaian national accused of stabbing refugees was released. The history of insecurity in the camps helps to explain both the dissatisfaction of the refugees and why any sort of disturbance in Buduburam would be seen as threatening to state security. The protest is evidence of the clear need to develop and implement stronger refugee security mechanisms early on – to avoid tensions.  

No longer refugees?  

On April 1, Minister Bartels indicated that the government of Ghana was planning on invoking the cessation clauses of the 1951 UN and 1969 OAU Refugee Conventions, which allows for the withdrawal of refugee status where the conditions that made it necessary in the first place no longer apply. In this case the government of Ghana’s argument is presumably that the refugees fled Liberia’s civil war and that since the war is now over the refugees should be able to safely return.  

Although this is a legal mechanism which the Ghanaian government has the right to invoke, it is important to note that, from a legal perspective this change must be based on a substantive assessment of conditions and circumstances in the home country. It is not intended as a response to conditions in the country of refuge. Although conditions in Liberia have improved greatly, and thousands have returned, some may have legitimate, continuing concerns about return. And Ghana’s 1992 Refugee Law recognizes this, allowing for refugees to remain even where the circumstances which caused their flight have ceased to exist if he “satisfies the Board that he has compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution” for staying. Ghana must honor this recognition that even where generalized conditions may have changed enough to warrant a cessation determination, individuals must have the opportunity to have their cases for continued protection heard.

Durable solutions

From a refugee policy perspective, refugee status is intended to be a temporary state. International protection is intended as a stopgap between protection by national authorities, either in the country of origin (through return), the host country (through integration) or through the intervention of a third state (through resettlement). However, in practice refugees often spend extended periods in exile (up to 18 year in the case of the Liberians at Buduburam) without access to these solutions.  

It is interesting to note that the refugees’ demands focused on repatriation and resettlement, entirely excluding the possibility of local integration. This omission sparked criticism from Ghanaians, and Interior Minister Bartels presented this as a rationale for invoking cessation, saying that “they do not want to be integrated into the Ghanaian society and that they would resist local integration with all their might.” But how accessible is integration in the Ghanaian context?

Individualized UNHCR assistance to the general population in Buduburam was halted in the late 1990’s, although UNHCR has continued to provide community assistance. Most refugees (excepting certain people with professional credentials) were unable to work legally in Ghana, and encountered difficulties in finding alternative means of sustaining themselves (although many have been extremely resourceful, for more information see Shelly Dick, Liberians in Ghana: Living Without Humanitarian Assistance, February 2002, for more information). Activists working in the camps also report that refugees are not allowed to attend Ghanaian schools and that they have faced harassment.

In this context, it is understandable that integration might seem a distant possibility for refugees, and that their focus might be on repatriation and the possibility of resettlement. Resettlement is, however, dependent of third states to offer spaces and not based on a right that refugees can assert. It is similarly understandable that given the length of the refugees have spent in exile and the extent of devastation in Liberia that refugees would see return as daunting.

Regions: Western Africa, Ghana
Type: Library, Refugee Rights News