The 20th century has been termed the century of the refugee or of the uprooted because of the very large numbers of refugees the century produced in nearly all parts of the world right into the new millennium[1]. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a 1999 mid-year count showed that Africa had six million refugees out of an estimated 21.1 million refugees worldwide. Africa‘s figure included about three million refugees living outside their counties of origin, two million internally displaced persons and one million former refugees who had returned home.

    The challenge of understanding, managing and resolving the variety of refugee situations worldwide confronts various international actors: governments, non- governmental organizations, relief agencies, multinational organizations, host populations and the refugees themselves. There is also the challenge facing scholars who have made it their business to research and offer policy recommendations. A good majority of the original studies on African refugees has tended, naturally, to address practical questions such as the allocation of resources within refugee communities and the administration of emergency and rural settlement policies. There exist a number of fairly detailed histories of both particular refugee populations and rural settlements, accounts of urban refugees, as well as case studies that focus on issues such as food distribution in refugee camps and the opportunities of income generating activities among refugees.

    But the available literature and research on African refugees have, by and large, been limited to the eastern and central African regions: Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, etc., where until recently most of the African refugee flows were concentrated and had received significant international media attention. There are only a few case studies of refugee communities in the West African sub-region. Clearly, the limited interest in West African refugees is due largely to the relative recency of ‘refugeeism‘ as a national problem and to the fact that, historically, host-societies in West Africa, throughout the pre-colonial and colonial periods, recognizing the ‘naturalness‘ of migrations irrespective of the causes, and the ‘innovative‘ role and potential contribution of ‘strangers‘ to society, have evolved a variety of rules, customs and protocol for receiving and accommodating ‘stranger‘ migrant populations.

    Following civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and political discontent in Togo since the mid 1980s, West Africa has seen exponential growth of refugee flows. In 1988, according to official UNHCR sources, there were only 20,000 refugees in the West African sub-region. In 1994, the number had shot up to 700,000. The UNHCR was spending $598 million of its 1994 total budget of $1.4 billion on African refugees alone, with Rwandan refugees costing the UNHCR $258 million (Daily Graphic (Accra) Friday, November 18, 1994:16). The urgent need for West African refugee studies cannot be overemphasized, given the pervasiveness and continuous growth of ‘refugeeism‘ in the sub-region.

    What follows is a brief discussion of a few of my main findings on the West African refugee experience based on preliminary summer (June-September 1999) fieldwork in two Liberian refugee camps in Ghana. I proceed to identify one or two questions often neglected in refugee studies, requiring detailed systematic investigation. It is well known that for centuries millions of West Africans have left their homes and ethnic groups to live in other countries and territories. The reasons for leaving home, then as now, have ranged from the desire for a better life elsewhere, natural disasters, flight from oppressive rulers or conditions, or wars, to wage-labor migrations promoted by the imposition of colonial administrations.

    The Liberian refugee camps in Ghana studied are the Buduburam camp (14,000 population) in the Gomoa district of the central region, located about 35 miles from the national capital Accra, on the Accra-Winneba trunk road, and the Sanzule-Krisan camp (2,000 population) in the eastern Nzema district of the western region, located about 20 miles from Elubo, Ghana/Cote d'lvoire border town respectively. One of the central questions guiding my investigation is the extent to which the evolution of the Liberian refugee communities in Ghana and their integration into host societies along the lines suggested or required by UN/OAU conventions simply replicate, reflect, contradict or contravene customary procedures and processes of reception and accommodation of ‘strangers‘ by host societies.

    Indeed, it is my assumption that patterns and processes of economic and social integration of refugee or migrant communities into host societies in Africa cannot be fully understood and appreciated except in terms of a thorough knowledge of indigenous traditions (‘invented‘ and ‘uninvented‘) and customary procedures. It is equally the case that as a result of the colonial partition of Africa and the imposition of international boundaries that divided ethnic groups of the same culture and language, a majority of those people considered ‘refugees‘ in ‘foreign‘ countries today may have their roots and family members in those countries, examples being contemporary Liberian refugees in Guinea or Sierra Leone or Togolese refugees in Ghana. For instance, the ethnic Kpelle, Mandingo and Mano of Liberia are believed to have migrated from Sierra Leone and Guinea.

    Who is a refugee? According to the 1969 UN and OAU Conventions on the Status of Refugees in Africa, a refugee is “Every person, who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of the country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his [her] place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his [her] country of origin or nationality.”[2]

    Some scholars have insisted on the need to distinguish between ‘refugees‘ and ‘migrants‘ even though ‘refugee‘ is a category of migrant, on the assumption that the policies and attitudes have differed in the West African sub-region depending on whether people are considered in host countries as refugees or migrants (i.e. ‘aliens‘). According to these scholars, ‘refugees are neither immigrants nor illegal migrants‘ though like immigrants they have forsaken their homeland for new countries and like illegal migrants they may enter these new countries without permission. But a refugee is unlike either. Both immigrants and illegal migrants are drawn to a country. The refugee is not drawn but driven; he seeks not to better his life but to rebuild it, to regain some part of what he has lost. The immigrant and the migrant are propelled by hope; for the refugee whatever hope there may be must arise from the ruins of tragedy[3]. Refugees are forced to leave their country of origin to look for refuge by factors that threaten their lives. Refugees as a rule are not able to plan their movements, often leaving on the spur of the moment. Migrants on the other hand choose to leave, attracted by the host country, by better economic opportunities. They plan their move to the host country to improve their economic well-being.

    Before the civil war, the demographic picture of Libya was characterized by several features typical of poor third-world societies: a high proportion of children under 15 years of age (about 47 percent in 1984), a high growth rate in Monrovia - the population of Monrovia and its surrounding areas including Congo town is said to have increased from 80,992 in 1962 to 421,058 in 1984; in coastal districts a high rate of rural- urban migration and the attendant social problems of slum creation, lack of social services, increasing crime, high unemployment and under-employment and wide-spread poverty.

    The Liberian refugee situation was created by the struggle over state power in Liberia with roots deep in Liberia's colonization history. The Liberian civil war was as unexpected as it was tragic. Liberia had enjoyed nearly 133 years of political stability. Liberia was founded in 1822 under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, by settlers, ‘free men of color‘; ex-slaves, free born as well as manumitted, recaptured West African slaves, the so-called ‘Congos‘ rescued from illegal slave ships by American naval vessels (as the U.S. Congress had passed legislation abolishing slave trade in 1808) and West Indian and Sierra Leonean creoles, themselves descendants of ex-slaves, who came to be known as Americo-Liberians.

    The Liberian Constitution, which was formally adopted on 27 September 1847, clearly established Liberia as an ‘exclusive settler dominated society‘ serving as an African outpost of Western, Christian civilization and the settlers as the ‘black colonial aristocracy.‘ Liberia has never been colonized by a European power typical of the history of nearly all African countries, giving Liberia a unique status and much prestige. At the end of World War 11 in 1945, Liberia was among the only four sovereign countries in Africa, the others being Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. Thus to African nationalist leaders and peoples struggling for independence from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, Liberia was a beacon of inspiration and hope, a symbol of Black Africa‘s dream realized. Even though some would consider the special relationship Liberia enjoyed with the United States as quasi-colonial, paradoxically, it is precisely this relationship that made Liberia before the civil war the choice destination of Africans wishing to emigrate to the U.S. and led Francophone Africans to refer admirably to Liberians as ‘les petits Americains.‘

    In an effort to topple the repressive and corrupt nine-year rule of President Samuel Doe, an ethnic Krahn whose 1980 coup had brought a sudden end to the Americo-Liberian political hegemony, Charles Taylor, a former minister of the Doe regime, led a rebel force that invaded the country on 24 December 1989 from Cote d'lvoire, touching off a bloody seven-year civil war. It was painful for West Africans, particularly Ghanaians who have had close ties to Liberia for generations, to witness the descent of Liberia into fratricidal war and anarchy. This situation had implications for sub-regional stability and peace, not only because many West Africans living in Liberia were caught up in the bloody violence but also because the civil war represented a cruel and dramatic negation of the very objectives of the 16-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose articles of association signed in Accra, Ghana on 4 May 1967 included economic integration and free movement of people, goods and services across the whole of West Africa on the solid foundation of sub-regional peace and stability. The conflict produced the largest flow of refugees in the sub-region. By November 1990, the number of Liberian refugees in neighboring countries was as follows: Cote d'lvoire - 193,000; Guinea - 311,000; Sierra Leone - 130,000; Ghana - 34,000 and Nigeria - 6,000 in addition to 860,000 internally displaced people, bringing the total to 1,534,000 of pre-war national population of 2.5 million.

    The brutal war created a humanitarian crisis that threatened the security and stability of the whole sub-region. ECOWAS was alarmed and embarked upon diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Liberia. This led to the formation of an ECOWAS peace monitoring group, ECOMOG, a force, initially of about 4,000 from Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, which intervened in late August 1990 with the purpose of putting an end to the war, establishing an interim government and supervising early elections and return to democracy. A Ghanaian was appointed force commander.

    The first major wave of Liberian refugees in Ghana were evacuated between August and November 1990 by Ghana navy ships and merchant vessels undertaking troop transport and logistic support for ECOMOG forces to and from Liberia and led to the establishment of a refugee camp at Buduburam for Liberians. The second major wave of about 4,000 Liberian refugees came in mid-May 1996 on the Bulk Challenge-Lagos, following renewed fighting in Monrovia, the so-called Easter Terror necessitating the creation of a second refugee camp at Sanzule-Krisan. The Bulk Challenge-Lagos‘s voyage on May 5-14,1996 made headlines in the international media.

    The Liberian refugees landing in Ghana came from diverse backgrounds - rich, poor, young, old, women and children, representing a cross-section of Liberian society. A majority were urban, living in and around the national capital, Monrovia, many of them enterprising and educated young men and women, including a significant number of professionals - academics, journalists, former government officials, sports folk, business men and women, engineers, lawyers, etc. The social composition of the Liberian refugee population in Ghana seems to be in sharp contrast to the hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees made up of the rural poor, mostly illiterate women and children who took to the bush and had to walk for weeks to reach border villages in neighboring Cote d'lvoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

    In times of civil war, those who choose to leave the country if they are rich, middle class, educated or have the means, may also choose how to leave - usually by air or sea transport, which are often safer and faster, and to pre-determined destinations. The poor and illiterate have no such luck. People with money simply pack up, bribe warring factions prepared to escort them to safety for a handsome fee and relocate within or outside the country, unless they choose to remain for personal reasons. Informants at the Buduburam camp told me of resident rich Lebanese traders who converted the crisis into an opportunity to make money by importing from neighboring countries staples and essential commodities like rice in short supply or scarce and selling them at exorbitant prices to local populations as the civil war raged. These traders were protected by warring factions who also depended on them for supplies.

    Decisions to leave Liberia for asylum, when and where to go, were shaped by the ideas and beliefs held by individuals as to the nature, circumstances and goals of their flight; that is their ‘cognitive model.‘ Given the fact that considerable population movement across West Africa is a historical and contemporary reality, there exist information and transnational networks both within the sub-region and overseas that influence the choice of final destination, and whether or not to register as a refugee on arrival at the host country. Class, ethnic and gender considerations act as important selective factors.

    Realistically, many of the passengers on the Bulk Challenge-Lagos, like the first group of Liberians evacuated by ECOMOG to Ghana, were technically speaking refugees, having no money for self-sustenance, not sure with whom or where to lodge; not being able to return home if things in the host countries got worse, since war was still on, yet most resisted the label ‘refugee‘ as a derogatory and demeaning label. More than half the total number of Liberians who fled the war in Liberia to Ghana before peace was finally restored in July 1997, for a variety of reasons - including the prevention of overcrowding - chose to live outside the refugee camps, with Ghanaian or Liberian friends or relatives, but they visited the camps regularly to check on friends and family, to socialize, to collect mail or for the official interviews held only at the camps for those seeking resettlement in the U.S. or Europe.

    Malaria, cholera outbreak, diarrhea and high fever and the lack of transport to convey the sick who required urgent care to the hospital caused an alarming increase in the deaths in the first two years in the camps. Refugee women were especially in need of pre-natal and post-natal care and other reproductive health services. For some refugees, the lack of services was a continuation of conditions that had existed in Liberia before they were forced to leave. For the urban middle class who had had them, the lack of services imposed special difficulties.

    As conditions in the camp improved and more basic social services - water, electricity, health clinics, schools, etc. - became readily available to residents, the Buduburam camp especially began to attract more and more Liberian refugees from Cote d'lvoire. As quality of life improved in the two camps, they were deservedly designated in UNHCR circles as sub-Saharan Africa‘s “4-star and 5-star” camps, respectively.

    Visitors to Buduburam ‘camp‘ find it indistinguishable from a typical Ghanaian town of its size. The camp community is lively, has an internal democracy and is run by an elected Liberia Welfare Council (eight men and two women). There is no evidence of the makeshift tents that provided shelter for residents in the first three years. They have been long replaced by permanent structures; made of bricks, cement blocks and wood, with corrugated iron/aluminum roofing. Signs of commerce are evident everywhere, and the main street bustles with life as one walks through the ‘camp.‘ There are little shops and table top displays offering basic necessities and produce markets. Restaurants like Don‘t Mind Your Wife - Chop Bar, Ma-Lucy Food Centre and Marcia‘s GB Spot boast good Liberian cooking. There are video clubs, communication centers for telephones, all Liberian owned. The ‘camp‘ has about a dozen good soccer clubs and women‘s kick ball teams with league matches; basketball, chess, checkers and scrabble are played for fun. There has been a phenomenal growth of churches and religious organizations in the ‘camp‘: Liberian Interdenominational Assembly, Buduburam United Methodist Church and Refuge Baptist Church are among the over 24 churches, mostly headed by Liberian pastors in addition to a mosque and some powerful juju practitioners in the camp. The camp even has a decent cemetery to bury their dead.

    This raises anew the vexed question of the role of refugee camps in the settlement of refugees. Studies of refugee camps in East Africa have drawn attention to the inhumanity of conditions in which increase in crime, problems of refugee protection and security and inadequate access to social services are common, questioning rightly whether refugees belong in camps at all. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) over the years has tried to develop in collaboration with the government of countries of asylum an increasingly efficient system of organized settlement (i.e. camps). The objective has been to provide assistance, security and a standard of living at least comparable to that of the local indigenous population, pending a change of circumstances that will allow refugees their return home voluntarily in safety and dignity or to new homes where they can re-establish their lives in peace and security. In many countries of asylum this laudable objective is unattainable. In sub- Saharan Africa this is largely due to the unequal treatment of African refugees and the budgetary constraints of UNHCR, which relies on voluntary contributions from the international community. According to the UN refugee chief Mrs. Sadako Ogata, of the $302 million budgeted for African refugees in 1999, only $127 million was received. She regretted that the international community and western countries in particular had given far less financial support to more than four million African refugees than to 850,000 refugees from Kosovo. Every Kosovo refugee received $1.60 every day, while each African refugee received 11 U.S. cents. (Daily Graphic, Thursday July 29, 1999:5). However, it seems in some cases the refugees themselves are part of the problem in the quest for a better life in countries of asylum. David Brokensha and Peter Hodges suggest that African refugees are often so traumatized by war and the experience of their flight that they are generally too intractable and uncooperative for any success to be achieved in community development[4].

    The question that requires further comparative investigation is what accounts for the exceptionality of the Liberian refugee camp experience in Ghana, especially in the light of the overwhelming difficulties that many refugees in abysmal camps face worldwide.

    Providing assistance to Liberian refugees in Ghana initially posed some problems. When the first refugees landed on Ghanaian soil, evacuated by Ghanaian vessels, Ghana had no refugee law. It was not until 1992 that refugee law, providing for the establishment of the Refugee Board and spelling out the rights and duties of refugees among others, was passed. So for two years the government could not accord them refugee status. This was compounded by the fact that there was no state agency competent enough to handle refugees. It was also unclear to various non-governmental organizations (NGOS) whether the Liberians could be designated as refugees at all given the peculiar circumstances of their arrival; the government was, as a result, slow in seeking international assistance for the refugees. So in the early and subsequent years assistance for the refugees fell largely on the institutions of civil society: the generosity of ordinary Ghanaian families, traditional rulers obligated by custom to provide help to strangers in their midst and the Christian Council of Ghana among others. But soon, in addition to the UNHCR, there was massive response from the international community and NGOs - the European Union, Ghana Red Cross Society, National Catholic Secretariat, World Vision International, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the Salvation Army, Caritas Internationalis, the Echo Club of Japan, the Assembly of God Relief and Development Services and the Lutheran Evangelical Church are among the organizations that helped transform the Liberian camps into habitable and thriving communities.

    But ultimately the greatest credit goes to the refugees themselves, especially the women who were determined against all odds to work hard to make a decent home away from home for themselves and their children. Driven by their faith in God, they were willing to bury the internecine feuds, ethnic, sectarian and factional hostilities that intensified the unprecedented brutalities of a war that claimed over 250,000 lives, caused inestimable property and environmental damage and forced hundreds of thousands out of their homeland.


    Maxwell Owusu is professor of anthropology at the U-M. He is the author of Uses and Abuses of Political Power (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970).

      1. This report is based on summer fieldwork supported by awards from OVPR Discretionary Fund and the Office of Associate Provost for Academic Affairs. Their assistance is gratefully acknowledged. The encouragement of Professor Lester P. Monts, a specialist on and a friend of Liberia, is well appreciated. return to text

      2. Jake C. Miller, “The Homeless of Africa,” Africa Today, Vol. 29, No. 2, December 1982: 5-30, 10. return to text

      3. L.N. and N.F. Zucker, The Guarded Gate (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishers, 1987), quoted in A. Essuman-Johnson, “Refugees and Migrants in West Africa” in FASS Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1996: 64-73, 64-65. return to text

      4. David Brokensha and Peter Hodge, Community Development: An Interpretation (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co, 1969), 9. return to text