Nathan Pajibo, like thousands of his fellow Liberians, has been living in Buduburam refugee camp near the Ghanaian capital Accra for over two decades after fleeing the civil war in 1990. In June 2012 he lost his refugee status alongside 11,000 Liberians across the region and the camp will soon be handed over to the district assembly, but lingering fear prevents Pajibo from returning.
“There are people [in Buduburam] who played a major role in the war, some ex-soldiers, ex-rebels. Some hurt a lot of people, some were hurt and they lost hope in Liberia as a country. If all your relatives were killed, the fear is there of returning, no matter who is in power,” he told IRIN.
Pajibo, now a school headmaster, said a lot of people at Buduburam, 44km west of Accra, remain traumatized by the war. “Take, if an individual’s entire family was wiped out. Even if the UN promises US$500 to go home, it is not an easy thing to get in the plane and go,” he told IRIN.
One of at least 6,000 Liberians still living at Buduburam, he is waiting for the Ghana Refugee Board to process his application. Some 4,000 ex-refugees have applied for local integration, around 1,000 will return to Liberia, and about 1,000 are applying for exemption to remain as refugees, according to the Ghana Refugee Board (GRB).
Frederic Johnson, 43, who fled to Ghana in 1990, is among the minority who feel ready to return. On a recent afternoon he and hundreds of Liberians lined up outside the camp’s gate to have their baggage weighed before flying home. “Ghanaians have been very good to us, some of them. Now is the time to go home to rebuild our nation. Liberia is yearning for all her citizens,” he told IRIN.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told global leaders at the UN General Assembly last week that “Liberia has turned the corner,” noting that with 10 years of sustained peace it is no longer a nation of war, fear, destruction and conflict.
Liberia “safe enough”
GRB programme coordinator Tetteh Padi agrees and is clear about boundaries. “Every refugee situation must come to an end. No one remains a refugee indefinitely,” he told IRIN. “In the case of the Liberian refugees, the international community decided… that conditions back in Liberia were safe enough for those who fled the war [to return home].”
But major problems remain in Liberia, where youth unemployment is skyrocketing and poverty rates are over 75 percent, according to the European Union, and basic services such as health care, education and electricity remain fragile.
Pajibo, echoing the fears of Liberian ex-refugees in western Côte d’Ivoire, sees the ongoing presence of UN peacekeepers in Liberia (UNMIL) as a sign Liberia is not really safe. “If there is no war, why should we have peacekeepers in the country?” he said.
While anyone without a criminal record is eligible to stay and work in Ghana, it is unlikely that more than a handful of the 1,000 Liberians seeking resettlement in a third country will be successful, said Padi. “It’s simply not an option.”
William Tarloe, now 32, was 16 when he fled his village in eastern Liberia after he witnessed fighters kill his father and try to rape his mother. The attackers spared him his life but stabbed his hand. “They told me they wouldn’t kill me but they would mark me,” he said. He found his sisters and mother in Côte d’Ivoire and they moved as a family to Ghana in 1998 due to insecurity on the Liberian-Ivoirian border. With no education, he mashes and sells cassava leaves to get by. “I want to go somewhere where I can rest my head,” he said.
A significant number of people in the camp have little choice but to stay as they have no identification cards or paperwork, said Padi. They had either returned to Ghana once they had been repatriated, arrived too late for the initial registration process, or arrived more recently to join relatives or find work.
Many are Sierra Leonean refugees who stayed in Ghana but were never offered a local integration package as the GRB did not exist at that time.
Living on the margins of Ghanaian society, there are few opportunities to find work. Nowadays Buduburam no longer resembles a refugee camp but is like any poor Accra suburb, with dilapidated houses, and shops selling clothes and cheap Chinese goods.
The neighbourhood became associated with crime and lawlessness over the years and police carry out periodic raids to arrest criminals. An unregistered orphanage at the camp was closed down in June 2012 and its managers allegedly arrested for prostituting girls.
Even so, some prefer to stay on the sidelines of Ghanaian society than to return to the past. “All my children grew up here, and I have lived here for more than 20 years,” said ex-refugee Regina Johnson. “We want to stay.” IRIN