Oru Stranded Refugees — We Have Been Abandoned
Situated in Ijebu North Local Government Area of the state, the camp was opened in 1990 following the civil wars, which ravaged both African countries, causing a dislocation that forced many to flee.
Thousands of the refugees were encamped at the Oru boarding facility, but between June 30, 2007, when the camp was officially closed and now, only 500 stayed back, majority of whom are Liberian nationals.
For the 17 years the camp remained open, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), Federal Government, non-governmental organisations and charitable individuals, had catered adequately for the refugees. But now, life has become unbearable for them. Since the closure of the camp, the goodwill has dried up, leaving those in camp in serious predicament, no food and no befitting shelter, coupled with non-availability of essential services. Their appearances say it all. Though they manage to smile and look friendly, deep inside them all is not well. They betray hopeless and frustration.
As at the time of the closure, there was an agreement between government, the National Commission for Refugee (NCR), the UNCHR and the refugees. They were given options of either-repatriation, exemption or integration into a community that had hosted them for 17 years.
Repatriation is for those who came to Nigeria and indicated interest to return home. Those who took exemption were those who indicated interest not to return to their country and as well not to stay in Nigeria, but apply to stay in any other country, while those who asked for local integration were refugees who wanted to be absorbed within the local community in Nigeria.
The Guardian learnt that 99 per cent of Sierra-Leoneans who opted for repatriation went back home through the UN. About 300 refugees opted for local integration and were offered N75, 000 per family and international passports, without meeting other conditions as stipulated in the Work Plan for Local Integration. Others in the camp are those who sought the exemption option, but were not offered accommodation in countries of their choice.
The Local Integration agreement, according to the provisions of the UNHCR’s Executive Committee Conclusion No. 104 (LVI-2005), “is a dynamic and multi-faceted two-way process, which require efforts by all parties, including a preparedness on the part of refugees to adapt to the host society, without having to forgo their own cultural identity, and a corresponding readiness on the part of host communities and public institutions to welcome refugees and to meet the needs of a diverse population.”
The bargain, a multipartite arrangement, was a progression from the refugee status to another realm of recognition as citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Under local integration, the refugees become entitled to a set of legal, economic and socio-cultural rights commensurate with those enjoyed by Nigerians and are shielded from any discrimination.
The process, The Guardian learnt took the following procedures: first, the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone undertook the issuance of passports to their respective citizens; and secondly, the Federal Government agreed to issue a five-year residence permit (including the right to work), which may be revoked if the holder becomes inadmissible under Nigeria immigration law, but renewable after the initial period. By the pact, ECOWAS facilitated the issuance of the permits; UNCHR picked the bills incurred in the process; and the UN Country Team, monitored the entire process to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement and other ancillary issues.
But according to the refugees, some of the demands or conditions needed for them to finally vacate the camp were not completely met by the authorities concerned, as stipulated in the Work Plan for Local Integration.
As stipulated in the agreement, The Guardian learnt that the refugees are expected to be relocated from the Oru Camp into areas of local communities with suitable accommodations. According to the agreement, the UNHCR is expected to pay for the annual rent and also provide transportation for only refugees registered for local integration, among others. That, they said was not met.
At present, life at the once lively camp has degenerated, as the refugees have been living from hand to mouth. When The Guardian visited last week, silence pervaded the site on a sunny afternoon.
The massive compound that once hosted a Teachers’ College was deserted. Despite the presence of the Refugee Primary School located inside the camp, the loud silence was disturbing, as there was nobody in sight, except for chirping birds and sound of horn from motorists along the Ijebu-Ode/Ibadan express road. It was later discovered that after the March 2015 deadline issued by the community, the refugees were relocated to the left side of the camp, very close to the bush.
On getting to the new location, suffering and poverty were visibly written on their faces. Their living conditions were far from conducive to human standards, in an environment overgrown with weeds and surrounded by bushes and dirt.
The structures, most of which were makeshift houses, made of wooden planks; hurriedly done when they were forcefully ejected last year, can no longer stand the test of time. Majority of the shanti-like structures, with rusted corrugated roofing sheets, accommodating a minimum of 10 people, could be mistaken for barns, where animals, crops, or farm tools are kept.
Hunger, poverty and depression are visibly written over the community. Though they enjoy the potable water, which flows occasionally, there is no toilet, no dump site and other essential services. Their only means of defecating is the bush. The whole surrounding smells of faeces, urine and dirt.
Though there is constant electricity supply, The Guardian learnt the refugees are paying exorbitant bills from their hard earned money. Since there is no assistance from anybody anymore, they now live from hand to mouth. While the men engage in menial jobs in the community to survive, the women focus on petty trading. Majority of their children, who were born and bred in the camp, are now out of school, as they could not afford the fees charged by public schools.
One of the major problems they are facing, according to The Guardian’s investigation is discrimination from the host community. But for their monarch, who had been of great assistance, life would have been more unbearable for them, one of the refugees said. They claimed that even in their markets, there is some sort of marginalisation, as they are always treated like outcasts.
Since the identity cards issued them have expired, moving around has also become difficult for the refugees. With that they cannot transact any business in which identification is required, especially with the banks.
Considering their pitiable condition, those who spoke with The Guardian said they are still around not because they refused to leave when the camp was closed, but that despite the closure, some of the demands or conditions needed to finally vacate the camp were not completely met by the authorities concerned.
The refugees, who rued their predicament, said they are ready to leave the camp, if government or well meaning individuals come to their aid.
Amara Sesay, a Sierra-Leonean, who has been in the camp for 15 years, since March 4, 1999 with his mother and nephew, narrated how he lost his mum and nephew at the camp. While his mum died, his nephew got missing many years back and could not be traced till date.
He lamented that the authorities have reneged on their agreement, forcing them to experience their present predicament. He disclosed that he has been doing menial jobs to make ends meet, noting that himself and others lost everything they had, including his papers, when they were forcefully ejected from their initial place of residence without notice.
“Our children have dropped out of school, there is no money to take the sick to the hospital. The Federal government and the United Nations have forgotten us, we were abandon refugees. We are made to understand that this place we are occupying has been sold and if the landowner comes tomorrow, we’ll have to leave this place.
“I chose the integration option and I was given only passport and N75, 000; every other promises, including accommodation were not fulfilled. I am very sure some people cornered our entitlements, which I am sure the UN is not aware of. But for the assistance of the monarch, the community would have driven us out of here. I am appealing to the UN and NGOs to take us back to our country, if I see money today, I’ll go back to Sierra-Leone,” the distraught Sesay said.
The Secretary of the Liberian Refugee Welfare Council, Alphonso Zlanwea, who has been in the camp for 14 years, confirmed that they were offered three options. Though he opted for exemption, which was rejected, he said those who opted for repatriation had left, stressing that those left in the camp opted for the other two categories.
“We have been abandoned, our brothers, sisters and loved ones are dying daily. The situation here is deplorable but we are still appealing to UNCHR in collaboration with the federal government to come to our aid.
“Some of our children are not going to school anymore, our people used to go to the Sawmill and block factories, but there are no jobs anymore. If the owner of this land comes today, we’ll go and live on the street. Our situation is very pathetic, its only God that can help us, they should come to our aid.”
Another Liberian, Jordan Dave described the camp experience as terrible. He noted that, whatever their experiences are, they are still appreciating God. “They accepted us when we got here, but now the situation has changed and they no longer want us. There is marginalisation between the people, and us, as we don’t speak their language. They find it difficult taking commercial motorcycle with us, even in the market, we face serious challenges. Our people are dying because of lack of medicare. They don’t allow us to bury our dead in their cemeteries; our people are buried in the bush. Now, they have forbidden us from burying our people in the bush, even the churches around are charging as high as N50, 000 before we could get a space to bury our loved ones and we don’t have such money.”
To Sekande Rebecca Nagbe, also a Liberian, since the UN left them, they’ve been living alone. She noted that she chose resettlement, but despite writing her story that she lost her parents and husband during the civil war and her rape experience, they still denied her and others, which really discouraged her.
Said she, “I have a small grand daughter, whom her mother left with me at the age of two because of frustration. What I am selling is not enough to cater for us. Nobody is even buying things because there is no money. I always go around to beg people to pay her school fees.
“Today, I took garri with coconut; the little left is for my daughter. The UN has never treated those of us on exemption well; a lot of people have been telling me to go back to Liberia but I cannot go back because they would need me to trace my brother, a soldier alleged to have planned a coup. I have no place to go, if not for the monarch, we’ll not be here, God first, Oba second.”
Though the monarch was not around to speak with The Guardian, it was gathered that the camp has been approved for the establishment of a School of Nursing and College of Health Sciences.
It was also learnt that the state Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare, were directed by the former governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, to take up the relocation and re-integration of the remaining refugees in the camp, but the order is yet to be effected till date.