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Liberia / Côte d'Ivoire: tears and joy as children reunited with their families

Since the reopening of the humanitarian corridor in December 2015 between the bordering countries of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, the ICRC and local Red Cross societies have resumed their cross-border family reunification activities.

In times of armed conflict, children often get separated from their families while fleeing to escape from the violence. Following the post-electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire in 2010-2011, many parents lost their children as they attempted to flee, especially in the west of the country.  More than 1,000 unaccompanied children ended up living in refugee camps or towns across the border in neighbouring Liberia.


Varney Bawn/ ICRC

In February 2016, the ICRC, in close collaboration with local Red Cross societies, successfully reunited 14 children with their families back in Côte d’Ivoire. They had sought refuge in Liberia five years ago. Red Cross staff and volunteers, witness to these emotional family reunifications, were involved in every step of the process from helping the children get back in touch with parents to ensuring their safe return back home.

Oniel Bestman / LNRCS / ICRC

Red Cross volunteers were deployed at official border points and in refugee camps in Liberia to gather information about these children and register them.  Ivorian refugees serving as Red Cross tracing volunteers, able to speak the local languages and act as interpreters between ICRC staff and refugee who do not speak French or English, played a pivotal role in identifying and documenting the children’s cases.

Varney Bawn /ICRC

The volunteers also helped unaccompanied children and other refugees make free phone calls to their relatives in Ivory Coast and exchange news through Red Cross messages.

Oniel Bestman / LNRCS / ICRC

The children, aged 10 to 20 years old, had been living with caretakers in refugee camps or in host communities in different towns in Liberia. The ICRC, together with a large network of Red Cross volunteers, looked for their families, including in the most remote areas. They also launched a poster campaign displaying photos of the children and published them on the website too. 

"When we manage to find the parents or relatives, we ask them if they want us to bring back their children, and then we also ask the children if they agree to be taken back to their relatives.  The reunification has always to be done in the best interest of the child,’’ said Miroslawa Czerna, the Protection Coordinator of ICRC.

When the ICRC team arrived in the refugee camp to pick up some of the children for cross border reunification to Côte d'Ivoire, the children’s feelings were a mix of excitement to return to their parents and homeland but also sadness about leaving behind the people and place they had called home for years. Such was the case of Allert, pictured below, who was sad about having to leave the care taker who she had lived with for years.

Oniel Bestman / LNRCS / ICRC

Estelle, her sibling and mother were travelling to Liberia to escape the violence in Côte d'Ivoire in 2011. Sadly her mother did not make it to the end of journey as her illness worsened along the way. Estelle could not hold back her excitement when leaving Liberia. “My sister and I left our country running and hiding in bushes before entering Liberia. But today, the ICRC puts us and our friends in three Land Cruisers and gave us travel papers to cross the border.”

Varney Bawn/ICRC

The children’s travel documents, provided by the ICRC, were stamped by the Liberian immigration authorities allowing the children to leave. The ICRC also gave basic items for the journey from Liberia to Côte d'Ivoire.

Varney Bawn/ICRC

Mendor and his sibling Sevenin on board an ICRC Land Cruiser headed for the Loguatuo border where the ICRC team in Liberia would hand them over to the ICRC team in Ivory Coast for reunification with their mother in Floleu, Ivory Coast.

Varney Bawn / ICRC

ICRC teams from Monrovia and Abidjan, met at Pekan-Barrage border post on the other side of the border, to receive the children.

  Rasmina Guehi / ICRC

Administrative formalities and health checks were done at the anti-Ebola centre in the Toulepleu general hospital. Some of the children did have some health problems: travel fatigue and malaria. They were treated straight away. Despite being tired and still a few kilometres from her village, Juliette was very happy to be going home: “I can’t wait to see my family. I'm looking forward to going back to school and showing off my new hairstyle and school outfit which was made for me in Liberia.”

  Rasmina Guehi / ICRC

When Sandra and Ella were reunited with their big brother in their village, there was a lot of shared emotions.

  Rasmina Guehi / ICRC

With the presence of refugees in the Bahn, Wlebo and PTP refugee camps and host communities in Liberia, the ICRC anticipates more family reunifications like these in the near future. These cross-border reunifications are only possible thanks to the close cooperation between the ICRC, local Red Cross societies, the authorities and other concerned humanitarian actors.

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