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Sierra Leone: Denial of right to seek asylum: Liberian asylum-seekers aboard the Victory Reefer

, N° d'index: AFR 51/004/1996

Dozens of refugees from Liberia aboard the Victory Reefer have been refused entry to neighbouring Sierra Leone to seek asylum. About 41 asylum-seekers are reported to have been effectively forced to return to Monrovia, which they had fled almost two weeks earlier to escape escalating violence in Liberia's civil war. AI is concerned that the Sierra Leone authorities have broken their commitments under international refugee law.

EXTERNAL AI Index: AFR 51/04/96
EXTRA 72/96 Denial of right to seek asylum 20 May 1996
SIERRA LEONELiberian asylum-seekers aboard the Victory Reefer
Dozens of refugees from Liberia aboard the Victory Reefer have been refused
entry to neighbouring Sierra Leone to seek asylum. About 41 asylum-seekers
are reported to have been effectively forced to return to the Liberian capital,
Monrovia, which they had fled almost two weeks earlier to escape escalating
violence in Liberia's civil war.
The refusal by Sierra Leone means that the approximately 41 passengers are
in danger of being forcibly returned to a situation where their lives may be
in serious danger. There were reports last week of at least 18 people being
killed in the streets of Monrovia, including unarmed civilians, and of captured
fighters being tied up, mutilated and dismembered before being shot. Civilians
face serious human rights abuses including deliberate and arbitrary killings,
torture and ill-treatment.
Amnesty International is concerned that the Sierra Leone authorities have broken
their commitments under international refugee law, including Conventions of
both the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations (UN),
to allow all asylum-seekers access to their territory to have their claims
to asylum assessed. The past practice of West African governments of giving
asylum to large numbers of refugees from the Liberian conflict -- Sierra Leone
already hosts 4,700 Liberian refugees, Côte d'Ivoire 305,000, Guinea 410,000,
Ghana 15,000 and Nigeria 4,000 -- appears to have been reversed.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
The Victory Reefer arrived in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, on 11 May
with about 1,000 people on board fleeing war-torn Monrovia. The boat anchored
outside the port for three days until it was given permission to dock on 14
May. About 900 Sierra Leoneans aboard, around 100 Liberians and a few Ghanaian
and Guinean nationals were given permission to disembark. About 40 Liberians
aboard, mainly women and children, were refused permission to disembark.
According to one press report, a 12-year-old Sierra Leonean girl is still aboard
the ship; when the girl's grandmother arrived to claim her she was told by
the authorities that she was too late. (The Sierra Leoneans had previously
fled Sierra Leone's own civil war which began in 1991 and had taken refuge
in Monrovia which had been relatively unaffected by Liberia's civil war apart
from brief periods in 1990 and 1992. With the announcement of a cease-fire
this year, Sierra Leoneans have begun to return home).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed serious
concern about Sierra Leone's decision. "It is most disappointing and distressing
that people were not given a proper chance to present their cases", UNHCR country
representative, Nini Akiwjumi, was quoted as saying.
Although the Sierra Leone authorities have not given reasons why the 40 Liberians
were not allowed to land, they have in the past expressed fears that Sierra
Leone's moves towards peace may be threatened if former armed fighters from
Liberia are allowed in as refugees. According to another informant, Liberians
with relatives in Sierra Leone on board the Victory Reefer were allowed to
stay, but the 40 mainly women and children without relatives were turned away.
2
Sierra Leone's decision follows that of another of Liberia's neighbours, Côte
d'Ivoire, on 15 May to close its doors to all refugees from the Liberian conflict,
saying that the country could not cope with any more refugees. Another 2,000
people fleeing the Liberian conflict on board the Bulk Challenge had been
refused entry on 9 May to Côte d'Ivoire and after three days of being shunted
in and out of a Ghanaian port were finally allowed to land in Ghana to seek
asylum on 14 May (see EXTRA 65/96, AFR 05/01/96, 14 May 1996, and update, AFR
05/02/96, 15 May).
Liberia's capital, Monrovia, has been the scene of sustained armed fighting
between a number of armed factions over the past six weeks. Scores of people,
including civilians, have died and tens of thousands of residents have had
to seek temporary shelter in the compounds of foreign embassies. Although there
is the possibility of a cease-fire in the next few days, there have been several
very short-lived cease-fires in the past month and a half; last week a two-day
cease-fire was broken by some of the most brutal fighting seen in the capital.
News from other parts of the country indicates that hostilities in the civil
war which began in 1989 have resumed elsewhere in the country and that nowhere
can be deemed to be safe.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send telegrams/telexes/faxes/express/airmail
letters in English or your own language:
- expressing grave concern that about 41 people aboard the Victory Reefer fleeing
the Liberian conflict have been refused permission to land and seek asylum
in Sierra Leone and have been forced to return to Monrovia where they may face
grave human rights abuses;
- pointing out that the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee
Problems in Africa, to which Sierra Leone is a party, states: "No person shall
be subjected by a Member State to measures such as rejection at the frontier,
return or expulsion, which would compel him to return to ... a territory where
his life, physical integrity or liberty would be threatened";
- reminding the Sierra Leone authorities that Monrovia, and the rest of Liberia,
are not safe and that civilians face deliberate and arbitrary killings, torture
and ill-treatment. (if possible, say that last week there were reports of 18
deaths, including civilians, in the streets of Monrovia);
- Calling upon the authorities to rescind their decision and publicly invite
the Victory Reefer to return to Sierra Leone;
if possible also:
- Say that although Sierra Leone has expressed concern in the past about the
risk of armed fighters entering the country posing as refugees, Sierra Leone
has a responsibility under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees
to allow all asylum-seekers in so that their claims can be assessed and genuine
refugees identified and protected;
- Express regret that despite Sierra Leone;s history of giving protection to
about 5,000 Liberian refugees, it is now denying asylum-seekers' human rights.
APPEALS TO:
- Mr Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, President of the Republic, State House, Independence
Avenue, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Faxes: +232 22 22 5615
Telex: 3230
Telegrams: President Kabbah, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Salutation: Your Excellency
3
Mr Maigore Kallon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation,
14 Gloucester Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Faxes: +232 22 22 5615
Telegrams: Minister Foreign Affairs, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Salutation: Dear Minister
Mr Kemoh Salia Gbow, Minister for Internal Affairs, Department of the Interior,
State Avenue, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Faxes: +232 22 22 5615
Telegrams: Minister Internal Affairs, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Salutation: Dear Minister
COPIES TO:
The Editors of the following newspapers:
- The New Citizen, 5 Hannah Benka-Coker Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone
- For di People, 1 Short Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone
- Expo Times, 1 Short Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Diplomatic representatives of Sierra Leone accredited to your country.
Please bring this to the attention of the refugee coordinator in your section.
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat,
or your section office, if sending appeals after 20 June 1996.

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