By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fate of 40,000 Ivorian refugees living in limbo across West Africa, who fled civil war five years ago, should be resolved this year, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
While some 250,000 former refugees have returned to Ivory Coast since the five-month conflict ended in 2011, many of those who remain in exile have fears about going home, while others are unwilling to do so, the UNHCR said
"We need to see if we can quickly wind the repatriation effort down, to give those refugees who wish to return home the chance to do so in the coming months," the UNHCR's regional representative, Liz Ahua, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It is time for people to go home, restart their lives, and contribute to the development of their country - they don't want to be left behind," she said after a regional meeting between the UNHCR and several West African states to discuss the issue.
Around half of the 40,000 Ivorian refugees in West Africa reside in Liberia, a quarter live in Ghana, while the rest are dotted across Guinea, Togo and Mali, according to the UNHCR.
Many of them wish to return home, but are worried about reintegrating into society, stoking lingering tensions from the civil war and becoming victims of reprisal attacks, Ahua said.
Ivory Coast erupted into conflict in 2011 when former leader Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat in an election run-off with rival Alassane Ouattara. Divisions remain between people who support Ouattara, now president, and those loyal to Gbagbo.
FEAR OF GOING HOME
For the refugees set on going home as soon as possible, concerns include a lack of documentation and disputes or violence over the land and property they left behind, Ahua said.
Land sales in the world's leading cocoa producer are subject to traditional customs, contracts are often scribbled on a scrap of paper, and property boundaries are rarely formalized.
"The biggest challenge for refugees returning home is the issue of documentation - they fear statelessness," Ahua said.
At least 700,000 people in Ivory Coast are stateless, meaning they have no nationality and are denied basic rights - leaving many unable to work or access healthcare.
Yet the UNHCR said it is working with the government to help returning refugees obtain identity documents upon their return.
It is not clear how many refugees in the region do not want to return to Ivory Coast, but the West African countries hosting them are willing to integrate them into society, the UNHCR said.
Life for the Ivorian refugees is becoming more and more difficult as funding dries up, with monthly food distributions being halved or halted in some refugee camps.
"The humanitarian aid situation is stretched with crises in Syria and Nigeria. Donors are looking to move on," Ahua said.
Radicalization is also a fear for the UNHCR in a region that has been plagued by attacks from militant groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram.
"In a region where terrorism is becoming an issue, we don't want these refugees to become radicalized," Ahua said."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)