Seeking Refuge: Fighting for a Chance at Freedom

A refugee family waits to receive food and supplies.
A refugee family waits to receive food and supplies.

As the curtain rises on Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror, Liberian refugee Shedrick Yarkpai has been resettled in Australia — one of more than one million refugees displaced when their homes and communities were destroyed in the Liberian civil wars.

A plurality of internationally-resettled refugees ended up in neighboring countries in West Africa: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, often near those countries’ shared borders. In these areas, refugee camps sprang up in large numbers, often assisted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee and Médicins Sans Frontières. Spare to the point of extreme poverty, these camps sprawled out over large areas; in Kouankan, Guinea, for example, nearly 35,000 displaced Liberians lived, sometimes for a decade or longer, in a two-square-mile camp carved out of the thick forest, filled with mud huts and soil-dyed tents. Food from the UN World Food Programme was rationed parsimoniously, and Guinean regulations forbid international refugees from hunting in or planting on the land of or outside the camps. The refugees existed without occupation and in penury: in Kouankan, there was no work, little education and most had no property other than the clothing on their backs.

The camps were able to provide a sort of safety—in many, there were rules that all non-residents had to leave the camp by nightfall. Still, extremist rebel soldiers snuck into the camps at night under cover of dark, for reasons respectable (visiting displaced family members) and reprehensible (looting and forced recruitment of child soldiers).

A refugee camp near the Liberia/Côte d’Ivoire border.
A refugee camp near the Liberia/Côte d’Ivoire border.

An interesting mix of characteristics define these national borders, many first drawn during the early and mid-19th century and sometimes reconfigured later. In a way, the borders are arbitrary, as they don’t signify divisions in ethnic or tribal identities, nor do they necessarily demarcate the lands of the great West African kingdoms and empires of the middle ages. The tribal factions (Krahn, Mandingo, Gio, Mano and more) that played a part in the Liberian civil wars were not constrained by borders on a map; because of that, rebel armies could train and grow in neighboring countries before invading and pushing further into Liberian terrain. There were no major linguistic differences on either side of these borders, either: the cultures were practically indistinguishable. Still, national leaders protecting—and often embezzling—the wealth of the area’s natural resources, including gold, iron ore and diamonds, kept vigilant guard over the borders. For a civilian, border-crossing risked life, limb and money: a solo crossing risked dangerous interactions with soldiers and guards known to plunder; if one sought assistance, the monetary cost of being smuggled across was incredibly high.

A mother and her children in a Liberian refugee camp.
A mother and her children in a Liberian refugee camp.

An even greater challenge for these refugees was intercontinental resettlement. Sanctuary countries (including Australia, as depicted in Objects in the Mirror, as well as Canada, the U.S. and a dozen others) admitted Liberian refugees—but demand far outweighed what the countries were willing to accept. According to the UNHCR, eligibility for international resettlement was based on criteria including level of education (preferring refugees with higher education), familial and cultural links to the areas of resettlement and a high perceived likelihood of seamless cultural integration. International resettlement applications also considered the urgency of the circumstances: those who could demonstrate more immediate danger to themselves and their families in their current country of residence (whether Liberia or its neighbors) were more frequently granted refuge. Australia, the sanctuary country where Shedrick is placed, has a separate “Women at Risk” visa class, which supports and protects refugees in female-headed families in immediate danger of victimization and abuse because of their gender; the country reserves more than one tenth of its refugee quota for those in this category.

The “lucky” Liberian refugees granted resettlement in international sanctuary countries were guaranteed a culture shock and made to do with very little. The UNHCR provided these individuals and families a tiny budget and only the most basic job skills training for a 90-day introductory period in their new homes, but after that the refugees were left to earn their own wages, facing often-challenging labor laws for non-citizens. And shifting political stances in the host countries could further upend their lives. In 2007, for example, George W. Bush signed an ”enforced departure” order for Liberian refugees granted a temporary protection status; 14,000 people who had resettled in the U.S. had just 18 months to return to Liberia, following the peaceable election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Liberian presidency. Suddenly, Liberians who had spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. faced deportation, including the possibility of being separated from their young children who had been born U.S. citizens. Of the 16 international sanctuary countries committed to accepting certain quotas of international refugees, Australia has remarkably efficient and generous strategies for assisting resettled refugees as they enter, participate and enrich the communities into which they are placed, and care for their physical and psychological well-being.

Suddenly, Liberians who had spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. faced deportation, including the possibility of being separated from their young children who had been born U.S. citizens.

In 2004, after Liberia’s disarmament and the resignation of President Charles Taylor, UNHCR began a significant multi-year effort to repatriate Liberians who had been displaced to other countries in West Africa—more than one third of the total displaced. The UNHCR was able to provide minimal remuneration for those repatriating and some modest assistance in rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure, but funding for that effort fell short, and national improvements slowed dramatically. Though the young population in Liberia is growing slowly today, it is estimated that nearly a quarter of Liberia’s pre-war residents, like Shedrick, left the land they called home, perhaps never to return.


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