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‘We aren’t hooked on handouts’ challenge Liberian refugees

There are 45,000 Liberians in Ghana – refugees from the Liberian war that began in 1989. They dispel the myths that refugees are hooked on government and UN handouts.

At the Kaneshie market bus station in the Ghanaian capital Accra, conductors' cries of "Liberia town! This way for Liberia!" mingle with calls for other destinations. No one asks why there should be a place called Liberia in Ghana.

The presence of some 45,000 Liberians in Ghana is now an accepted fact – it is 13 years since Ghana provided a safe haven for people fleeing Liberia's bitter civil war that erupted in 1989.

Their haven, formerly the little-known hamlet of Buduburam some 35 kilometres from Accra, is a refugee camp with a difference.

There are no barbed wire fences and its inhabitants can come and go freely. In fact – but for the haphazard layout and cramped appearance that suggest hurried construction – it could pass for a normal Ghanaian town.

And Buduburam positively bustles with business: table-top soft drink bars jostle with eateries, beauty salons, dressmaking and shoemaking shops, telephone and internet cafes. Some refugees even grow crops for the settlement's new market – run jointly by refugees and locals.

"Here in Ghana we have learned to be self-employed," says John Connell, chairperson of the Liberian Welfare Council, which represents the refugees. "In Liberia if you were not employed by the government, then you were not working."

Connell, who was an insurance claims manager at home, has completed a family planning course at Buduburam and is now a distributor of family planning products.

Life in Buduburam has also given many women their first opportunity to get educated and learn business skills. "After 13 years here, when we return home the question will be: 'What did you do during your years in exile?'" says Irene Jayee, 42, president of the Liberian Refugee Women's Organisation. "So we decided to put our skills in order."

Shelly Dick, a researcher who carried out a field study of Buduburam refugee camp in 2000 and now works at the US government's Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, says Buduburam "dispels a common myth (held by governments, donors and the media) that refugees are dependent and hooked on handouts in camps."

"This myth is perpetuated by the common UN agency response to dealing with a refugee crisis – which is to put them in camps."

"While dependency is a myth, need is not – needs are very real and pressing," she adds. But instead of giving people handouts, refugees should be allowed to contribute economically, intellectually and artistically: "Don't create a situation where refugees are reduced to beggars."

When Liberians refugees began arriving in 1990, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided tents, blankets, food and medicine and, later, skills training in carpentry, masonry, soap-making and tie-dye.

It helped 3,000 refugees return in 1997 when a fragile peace was brokered, but most chose to remain in Ghana. Believing that Liberia was now safe, the UNHCR stopped giving material assistance to individual refugees in 2000. But instead of encouraging refugees to return home, the move helped galvanise them into self-sufficiency.

The refugees took over the community school and clinic, built their own houses and started their own businesses. "When the UNHCR left, we tried to shoulder our own responsibilities because we could not sit here supinely," says Connell.

Capital for some of the ventures was raised through loans, remittances from families abroad and credit from Ghanaian suppliers in Accra.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR was forced to re-establish its presence at Buduburam in April 2002, when the conflict intensified in Liberia and thousands more fled to Ghana.

David Kamphuis, UNHCR protection officer for Ghana, says Buduburam is a success because – unlike most refugee camps – it does not isolate refugees from locals.

But the picture is not all rosy. Some are unemployed, some cannot even afford to buy bread. "Although they have managed very well, it's clear some people fell through the cracks," says Kamphuis.

"The assistance we now provide is not so much to individuals. We help the schools with books, benches, building a new school block," says Kamphuis.

Allison Hughes, a refugee and physics lecturer at the University of Ghana, believes the UN should study Buduburam and use it as a model: "If we were able to survive, they should find out at what point aid should be cut off so that people's initiative will grow."

But Delphine Marie, UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, says "withdrawal of aid doesn't necessarily lead to self-sufficiency". Negotiation with the host government to allow refugees freedom to leave the camps, settle in local communities, sell goods and find jobs is also important – as are skills training programmes.

Despite the success of Buduburam, many Ghanaians have mixed feelings towards the refugees, often perpetuated by the media. They reflect the usual stereotypes: some mistakenly believe the government in this heavily indebted poor country is spending its overstretched resources on the refugees. Others fear Liberians are involved in crime.

"The biggest problem dealing with refugees is ignorance," says Mumuni Bawumia, secretary of the government's Refugee Board. "We've been trying to educate people that they're just like us, that they're no different."

Connell is convinced that most refugees in Ghana will return home if peace is fully restored – taking their new-found skills with them.

Buduburam's refugee women have already taken a visible role in the Liberian peace talks in Accra. On 22 July, they hit international headlines when they threatened to strip naked if the three fighting factions refused to reach a compromise.

Says Jayee of the Refugee Women's Organisation: "We'll be going back to build a new Liberia. And who are the new Liberians? It's we, those now in exile."

Ajoa Yeboah-Afari, a Ghanaian journalist and former BBC correspondent, works as editorial co-ordinator for the Media Foundation for West Africa and consulting news and current affairs editor for the (Ghanaian) TV Africa channel.

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