The tattered welcome mat: Guinea’s refugee burden

Boy learning pottery in a refugee camp in Guinea
Boy learning pottery (© Eric Beauchemin)

Guinea has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees, despite its extreme poverty. In the spring of the year 2000, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees urged the world to remember Guinea, the country with the largest number of refugees in Africa. According to the UNHCR, “the Guinean challenge is one of the most complex ever experienced. It’s a heavy burden for this country. Guinea is both poor and forgotten.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: May 17, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The tattered welcome mat: the refugee burden of Guinea”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The usual reaction of people is to place the blame on somebody else. Let me remind you that we have approximately 400.000 refugees here. More than twice the local population of 200.000 Guineans.

I come due to outbreak of war in our country which is Sierra Leone. So I felt I had to seek refuge from being damaged. So I had to come here. EB: What is it specifically that made you come here? Were the rebels beginning to attack your area? They were not only planning to attack, but they attacked, so we had to escape to this end. EB: Did you escape with your entire family? I managed to escape with my entire family. EB: How big is your family? I, my wife and my children make a family of six. EB: Is life OK here in the camp? Well, so so. Not too bad, not too good. EB: In what sense is it not too bad? Well we have shelter. We can get food. We can get medicine, but not sufficiently. EB: You said it’s not bad, but it’s also not good. In what sense is it not good because there’s not enough? Yes, that’s it. There’s not enough. We can’t even get half of what we expected. EB: And what are you waiting for to return to Sierra Leone? If the peace holds, then there is disarmament, then we shall get back to Sierra Leone. If those guns are not taken from those guys, then no one, none of us here will venture to go back because we think the same thing will happen.

Across the road from David Kano and the Niayédou Refugee Camp, the village blacksmith plies his trade. Less than a decade ago, Niayédou was one of the small, tranquil farming villages you find throughout West Africa. 300 people lived here when civil war broke out in neighbouring Liberia. The war then spread to Sierra Leone. Within a few years, the 300 people living in Niayédou had 25,000 neighbours, like David Kano, just a few hundred metres away

Abukar Diallo, liaison officer between Niayédou and the refugee camp
Abukar Diallo, liaison officer between Niayédou and the refugee camp (© Eric Beauchemin)

Abukar Diallo is the local liaison officer between Niayédou and the refugee camp. He explains that before the refugees came, there were a lot of trees here, especially palm trees. But they were cut down to build huts for the refugees.

In this Guinean village at the crossroads with Liberia and Sierra Leone – two countries at war throughout much of the 1990’s – some certainties remain. It’s still the women who do some of the hardest work, like beating the rice to separate the husk from the grain. Life here remains a struggle against poverty, the kind of poverty that makes even simple dreams impossible to fulfil. When the 25-thousand refugees arrived, Niayédou’s 300 inhabitants didn’t really know what to expect. They’re our brothers and sisters, says Abukar Diallo, but he still doesn’t understand why they are receiving things which he and the other people in Niayédou can only dream of.

We believe that an injustice has been committed against us by the authorities. The refugees can’t be blamed. The authorities should also assist us. Many of my people complain to me. We don’t have any bore holes, so the women have to go to the refugee camp to get water. There are often conflicts, and I am asked to intervene. I speak to both sides to restore peace. We have to help them find solutions to all these problems. That’s life.

A young girl giggles at the sudden attention as she spreads rice to dry in the hot sun. Like most of Niayédou’s children, she doesn’t speak French, so she’s unlikely to have ever attended school. On the other side of the road, a school for refugees was opened in 1994. It wasn’t until 4 years later that a kindergarten was inaugurated in Niayédou. It’s injustices like this that are causing frictions and jealousies, but the refugees, insists Abukar Diallo, are still brothers and sisters.

When people live together, there are bound to be problems. Usually there are small problems between people. People here have complained that bananas have been stolen, manioc and things like that. We can’t blame the refugees. There are simply too many people in this tiny village. So we have to share.

It’s only a 15-minute drive from Niayédou to Guéckédou – the big town in this part of Guinea. It’s a bumpy ride. After so many convoys of food and other supplies, the road desperately needs a new coat. A decade ago, when the refugees first arrived in Guéckédou, there were no camps. People and the authorities tried to cope as best they could with the influx of tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of refugees, says the mayor of Guéckédou, Saa Martin Kamano.

Saa Martin Kamano, Mayor of Guéckédou
Saa Martin Kamano, Mayor of Guéckédou (© Eric Beauchemin)

The people we now call “refugees”, we took them in because they were our brothers and sisters who were fleeing suffering and war. We belong to the same tribe as the people on the other side of the border in Guinea and Liberia. We took our brothers and sisters in without second thoughts. In the beginning, the UNHCR and donor governments did nothing. In Guéckédou, in particular, but Guinea in general, we have always accepted religious diversity, and we have a tradition of hospitality. So we shared everything with them. Some people even took the refugees into their homes.

As recently as the late 1980’s, Guéckédou was a small, cozy town. Its strategic location – at the cross-roads of three countries – make it a key commercial centre. On Wednesdays, it hosts what’s reputed to be the biggest open-air market in West Africa, where anything and everything can be found. On market day, Guéckédou still bubbles with activity, but the city is no longer the same, says Mayor Kamano.

The city of Guéckédou has become a real refugee camp. Of the 87-thousand people living here, 40-thousand are refugees. They live among us, and they’re causing enormous problems. Most of them are unemployed and have few skills or training. They’re also destroying our environment. People here used to only have to walk about 2 kilometres to get fire wood. Now there are no more trees around Guéckédou. You have to go 10 kilometres or more to find wood. The city is much dirtier now, and the river which crosses Guéckédou is very polluted. It was our source of fresh water, but now you can’t even get near the river anymore because they throw corpses, dogs and rubbish into it.

The greatest environmental impact has been on the region’s forests. Guéckédou is located in one of Guinea’s most densely wooded areas, but so many trees have been cut, says the prefect Mamadouba Tounkara, that it’s affecting the region’s ecosystem.

Mamadouba Tounkara, prefect of Guéckédou
Mamadouba Tounkara, prefect of Guéckédou (© Eric Beauchemin)

Just come to Gueckedou during the dry season and you will realise that the forest is gone. Gueckedou has become a pre-savannah. The ecosystem is seriously under threat, and it’s easy to understand why. The refugees don’t have any source of revenue. So they do the simplest work, like cutting trees to sell firewood or to make charcoal. Just drive on the roads around Gueckedou: 8 out of 10 people you meet are carrying piles of wood or bags of charcoal. The people who do this are refugees. And if you have 350-thousand people cutting trees down, it obviously causes very, very serious environmental damage.

Most Guineans blame the refugees for the devastation of their natural resources. They also blame the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for not doing more to stop the destruction. The head of the UNHCR in Guéckédou is Elike Segbor.

When you have more than twice the population as a refugees in a particular area, there are certainly environmental damages and we’re doing a lot of things on that. We’re not just sitting idle and watching that. No, we have projects that are designed to plant trees. We have a big reforestation project. But it’s also a fact, the reality is this is a type of activity that we conduct best when the refugees are gone. While they are here, while they are in the camp, it’s very difficult to engage in heavy environmental activities. While they’re here, they need space, they need land to cultivate. They need a place to stay. It’s going to be very difficult to do more than what we are doing now.

The longer the refugees remain in Guinea, the greater the damage. Already, say Guinean forestry officials, 80% of the region’s vegetation has been destroyed, and several species are threatened with extinction. Some of the damage can be repaired, but not all, says Kamara Mamadou Karomoko, who’s in charge of the Guinean government’s efforts to rehabilitate the areas devastated by the refugees.

Kamara Mamdou Karomoko, in charge of Guinean government’s efforts to rehabilitate the areas devastated by the refugees
Kamara Mamdou Karomoko (© Eric Beauchemin)

Trees can be planted, of course, but the damage is so severe that we think that this region, known as Guinée Forestière, or the forest area of Guinea, should be called Lower Guinea. The region has been thoroughly devastated. They can plant trees, but planting trees for the sake of planting trees is not a policy. We used to let the land lie fallow for six or seven years. Now it’s dropped to no more than two years, and this is leading to a drop in crop yields. That is one of the visible effects. There isn’t enough land, so people are now farming the slopes. It’s causing a serious risk of soil erosion. Already there have been landslides and we’re beginning to see gullies. In certain areas, the topsoil has been completely washed away and the crust is beginning to appear.

The deforestation is also affecting the water supply, says the prefect, Mamadouba Tounkara.

It used to rain often here, and the rivers and streams were always full. Now, there’s only a tiny trickle in the beds of these rivers and streams. The ecosystem is being destroyed: because of deforestation, less water is seeping into the ground. So the land is becoming less fertile and we can no longer plant our traditional crops. Tree leaves used to provide natural compost that increased soil fertility. Now that these trees have been cut down, the land is becoming less fertile. It’s a phenomenon we see throughout this region.

Change is coming too quickly to Guinea. For nearly 2.5 decades, it was largely closed to the outside world. Since the mid-80s, the country has opened up, but the change in policy seems to have brought little good to Guéckédou. The refugees, says Mr. Tounkara, have only made the situation worse.

They have brought customs which were unknown to us. There are more and more bars and cafes. They were imported by these anglophone refugees. Excuse me for saying this, but they have a way of living that is different from ours. That’s why we now have bars everywhere where enormous quantities of alcohol are consumed. Even people who didn’t drink are now tempted. It’s easy to understand why, but this didn’t use to happen. As a result, some vulnerable Guineans are becoming alcoholics, just like the refugees. We have also seized large quantities of drugs clandestinely introduced into this region by Sierra Leonian and Liberian refugees. It’s a frightening phenomenon which we have to stop. And there are more and more prostitutes. You just have to walk around the city to see that there are young girls at every street corner. These bars also employ many young girls. It’s another money-making operation for the refugees.

Many people in and around Guéckédou have complained to the authorities about the refugees. Both the prefect and the mayor say they continue to defend the refugees’ right to remain in Guinea, as long as the situation in Sierra Leone remains unstable. But the refugees’ impact on local life has been so enormous that at times, even the mayor becomes exasperated.

We have problems because they’re contributing to the rising crime rate. There’s crime in the refugee camps, but since the refugees live among us here in Guéckedou, we’re seeing more and more crimes right here in our city. It’s hard to know who’s who and what’s what nowadays. The refugees have not only changed Guinean values, they’ve also altered our culture. Everything has changed. If you see a young Guinean today, you can’t distinguish him from a Liberian or a Sierra Leonean. Our young people even listen to the American songs that were played in Liberia. That’s what people like now. We have so many refugees here that we’re overwhelmed.

The mounting irritation over the refugee presence has been fuelled not only by rising crime levels, but also by rebel incursions, particularly from Sierra Leone. Even though the refugees fled their countries to escape the rebels, the authorities tend to blame them for the incursions, says Thierno Maadjou Sow, the president of the Guinean Organisation for the Defence of Human and Citizen Rights (OGDH).

Thierno Maadjou Sow, president of the Guinean Organisation for the Defence of Human and Citizens’ Rights (r) and Souleimane Bah of the OGDH (l)
Thierno Maadjou Sow and Souleimane Bah of the OGDH (© Eric Beauchemin)

The rebels have gone very far into the interior of the country, attacked villages, taken goods and then returned back over the border. Whenever this happens, refugees are accused of being accomplices of the rebels. It’s also often said that there are rebels hiding amongst the refugees. As a result, security officials are always on a state of alert, and this has led to violations of the rights of all the refugees. Many of our police officers and soldiers are relatively poor. When the refugees try to go back to their country, they take all their belongings. We’ve even received reports of security officials launching attacks on refugees. They have detained and imprisoned them or expelled them back to their country of origin in order to seize their belongings, particularly television sets. But generally, when these types of violations occur, unfortunately, there’s no response from the authorities.

In most cases, the human rights organisation can only catalogue the ongoing violations. As the economic situation in Guinea continues to deteriorate, says Mr Sow, the refugees are easy scapegoats and pawns.

Often people try to create conflicts between the refugees and the Guinean population for political reasons. It’s a fact that the authorities have given ID papers to some refugees so they can vote. But the opposition suspects the refugees are voting for the government and this causes tension. Guinea’s economic situation is fuelling the tensions. Before 1984, Guinea was a closed nation. It was peaceful and there was no crime. But the socio-economic conditions have changed fundamentally in Guinea. Over half the population is unemployed, and even university graduates can’t find work. So people are resorting to crime to survive. These internal factors have nothing to do with the refugees, but they’re the ones being blamed.

The Guinean authorities and people are also blaming the organisation responsible for taking care of the refugees, the UNHCR. They perceive it as the representative of an international community more concerned with refugees in Europe and acute humanitarian crises. The international community, Guineans say, is less interested in refugees in their part of the world or in their country’s battle against endless, grinding poverty. It’s a complaint Elike Segbor, the head of the UNHCR in Guéckédou, has heard many times.

Yeah, yeah, that I can understand. And I can also understand their frustration. But we try to explain that we work within a mandate. It’s not our mandate to assist the Guinean population. That’s the mandate of the UNDP, the World Bank and all the sister agencies. We have a mandate for refugees, so that’s our priority and that’s what we do first. So I can understand that they are frustrated but we have no means to cover the local population as well.

United Nations’ agencies are reluctant to criticise each other. Mr. Segbor won’t go further than to say that other agencies might pay a bit more attention to the situation. But the United Nations and charities can only respond if they receive adequate funding. In this forgotten corner of Africa, says Mr. Segbor, money is scarce.

It’s a very sad situation because we have a lot of people here in need. We don’t have enough funds to cover all their needs. We don’t have as much as food as we would have liked to. We don’t have funds to conduct all the activities we have. It’s very unfortunate. And we indeed work under a lot of constraints here. EB: How much of the money have you received that you asked for? In Guéckedou, we did not have more than half the money we need. EB: And this is to carry out essential projects. Basically yes, to carry out just essential projects, just the basic projects, the one that ensure the survival of refugees here. EB: As a result, what have you had to leave by the wayside? What type of effect has it had on your programmes? Yeah. I’ll give you a simple example, like education, primary education. No more than half the children in school age go to school because we don’t have enough school, we don’t have enough means to build more schools, to recruit more teachers. And also, the health infrastructure, the sanitation problem we have here, serious problem that we could have solved if we had more means. And we would have loved to have more agricultural projects to allow refugees to engage in income-generating activities, mostly in agricultural sector. We can’t. We don’t have enough land and certainly we don’t have enough means to buy all the tools, the agricultural tools, the seeds, the fertilisers, you name it, that would allow them to have a better life.

I’m SPE Alpha. I’m the agricultural technician in charge of the farm here. As you can see, this is what we call chili pepper. It’s a medium variety crop. ‘Cause of lack of irrigation, we are managing out of hand troughs.

Mr. Sakwee, Sierra Leonean refugee working for the West African Co-operative Development Society
Mr. Sakwee, a Sierra Leonean refugee (© Eric Beauchemin)

Despite the lack of support, refugees and Guineans realise that they have to do something for themselves. 300 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone, together with several dozen Guineans, set up a co-operative called WACODES, the West African Co-operative Development Society. S.J. Sakwee, a refugee from Sierra Leone, is one of the field assistants.

Previously, when we were at home, we were not taught the methods of planting the necessary plants you are presently seeing. When we go back home, we are going to implement the same method that we have been taught here, and then our brothers and sisters who were left behind can be taught also so that we can become self-sufficient instead of wholly and solely relying on the government. EB: It also gives you some income that when you do go back to your country, you do have some money to buy seeds, etc., to actually start a farm. Yes. Because like the NGOs, the governments, we almost rely on promises which are not forthcoming. But when I have money to buy my own, I can plough my land. I can rely on my own self-sufficiency.

Papa Ousmane Kamara, sociologist at the University of Conakry, who has been studying the refugees’ impact since 1990
Papa Ousmane Kamara (© Eric Beauchemin)

Mr Sakwee’s determination and optimism speak volumes about the resilience of refugees in the face of adversity, about the resilience a people traumatised by a very brutal war. While their impact has been largely negative, the refugees have brought benefits to Guinean society, says Papa Ousmane Kamara, a sociologist who lectures at the University of Conakry, the capital of the West African republic. For the past decade, he’s been studying the refugees’ impact on Guinean society.

The refugees came with new ideas, and our people have benefited from that. They had better agricultural techniques that our people have now learned. They also went to health posts and hospitals. The Guinean government had spent a lot of money on building health centres and hospitals, but no one was going. Now our people are learning. Our government also spent a lot of money on building bore holes, but nobody was using them. Now, Guineans are following the refugees’ example getting their drinking water from wells. They still do their washing in the river, but they get their drinking water from the bore holes.

Alain Découx, Doctors without Borders
Alain Découx, Doctors without Borders (© Eric Beauchemin)

Alain Découx of the Belgian branch of Doctors without Borders – the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize laureates – has also seen the benefits of the refugees’ presence. But he recognises the negative impact. Guinea’s refugee burden, he says, raises a number of fundamental issues.

We tend to fall into the trap of saying that all a country’s problems are due to foreigners, particularly when they are refugees. That’s what’s happening in Guinea too. But it’s clear that the international community’s investments have probably enabled Guinea to develop far more quickly than if it had had to obtain the funds through bilateral or traditional multilateral assistance programmes. That’s in macro-economic terms. In micro-economic terms, the effects have been just as clear: prices have risen, and the country’s natural resources are under pressure. The shortage of food stuffs is obviously linked to the refugee presence. On the other hand, all the infrastructures that were built for the refugees – such as schools and health posts – and the hospitals and roads which were rehabilitated to assist the refugees will remain after they leave.

The camp is divided into sections. The sections are named after the places the refugees come from. You have Freetown 1, Freetown 2, you have Lungi, …Makeni, New London. Belgium, is known from a place where Sierra Leoneans particularly get used vehicles. So when the refugees came, most of the refugees come with their vehicles here. So you find a lot of vehicles, they called the place Belgium. So that’s very interesting with them. But now most of those people have gone to Conakry. Some have gone to back. Kofi Annan came some time back, give some statements in this camp. It’s interesting support of the refugees, sympathise with our situation. So it’s named Kofi Annan street and there’s a Kofi Annan school. So there’s a good school and all the teachers are Sierra Leoneans.

Refugee boy learning carpentry skills
Refugee boy learning carpentry skills (© Eric Beauchemin)

Joe Turay is in charge of the mission of the Catholic group, Caritas, in the Forécariah Camp, one of the biggest refugee camps in Guinea. Caritas is working mainly with children, teaching them skills such as pottery. It’s also trying to help the refugees deal with their trauma as well as foster peace and reconciliation. Most Guineans still want to help their brothers and sisters from the other side of the border, but after nearly a decade, says the prefect of Guéckédou, Guinea’s sacrifices and suffering shouldn’t be forgotten by the international community.

To be quite honest, we aren’t tired. The Guinean people, the government, wanted to receive the refugees. We have always repeated what our president, Lansana Conté, says: it’s our duty to welcome our Sierra Leonean brothers and sisters. We have also taken part in the West African peace-keeping forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone. We are simply carrying on in the same tradition of hospitality. It’s also an act of solidarity with our African brothers and sisters. So we’re not tired. We’re simply asking the international community to help us help our brothers and sisters.

But that’s unlikely in this forgotten corner of Africa: even the UNHCR, repeats Elike Segbor, has to beg for funds for essential programs.

The programme here is a difficult one. The 400-thousand and plus refugees are not really getting the type of assistance we would have liked to give them. We of course all hope that they can go home as soon as possible, but it’s not the case, and while they are here, we really need to have more means to assist them.

Unaccompanied refugee girl
Unaccompanied refugee girl (© Eric Beauchemin)

Guineans are at a loss. They welcomed the refugees, as tradition and international humanitarian law dictate. A decade later, their food reserves have been exhausted, their environment devastated, their way of life forever altered, in this, one of the poorest nations in the world. According to the Guinean government, over a tenth of its population are refugees, making Guinea the country with the highest percentage of refugees in Africa. And unlike Europe, which has complained bitterly about growing numbers of asylum-seekers, Guinea cannot build walls or send them back. It’s no wonder, says Souleimane Bah of the Guinean human rights organisation, that Guinea’s welcome mat is becoming tattered.

The international community, the funding agencies, they make an unjust distinction between European refugees and African refugees. We’ve all heard about Kosovo. Western nations have made huge investments there. That never happens here in Africa. They give, but it’s in drips and drabs. I don’t understand why. It’s unjust. Refugees – whether they be from Europe, the Americas or Africa – should be treated equally. There must be equality, yes. It’s extremely important.

“The tattered welcome mat” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.