Distributed June 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Melissa Bowman
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 675 Words


Melissa Bowman

Liberians’ fear of being denied refuge is a real one
No one, not the Liberians or any other immigrant or refugee group, should have to worry about returning to a country where they would fear for their lives.

The effects of a civil war that began in Liberia 10 years ago are still being felt by its exiles in the United States today. In the seven states where Liberians most often set up communities, it is common to hear men quietly recount memories of seeing their parents beheaded or women tell of being raped. Children who remain in Liberia are forced into fighting at the age of 12.

Yet Liberians who have made it to the seemingly safe haven of the United States have reason to be afraid. They might be sent back before conditions are safe to return.

In the English-speaking West African country, brutal fighting and rampant human rights violations have led to the deaths of 200,000 Liberians, and thousands of others have fled for their lives. A decade ago, the United States granted 5,000 refugees temporary protected status so that they could find safe haven while conditions in Liberia remained unsafe. Eleven years later, conditions in Liberia have not improved. The majority of Liberians express the desire to go back to Liberia, yet many are afraid of returning under the current regime and fear the power of the current president, Charles Taylor, who was educated at Bentley College near Boston.

A few months ago, students at the University of Liberia held a peaceful protest in support of four members of the press who had been detained without charges; the president ordered troops to quell the demonstration. More recently, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia for continuing to support rebels in Sierra Leone. Fighting persists in some areas of Liberia and skirmishes along the border with Guinea have led to another wave of refugees crossing the border. With rebels advancing toward the capital of Monrovia, war has again broken out in the northern part of the country. This has led to a renewed wave of attacks on civilians and a corresponding rise in the number of refugees crossing the border and entering camps.

As if continued destabilization wasn’t enough of a reason for Liberians to fear returning home, Taylor has been openly hostile toward those with temporary protected status, recently calling the provision a “bread and butter safe haven for many Liberians who were never victims of our civil war.”

The Liberian population is spread throughout the United States, with the largest concentrations in Texas, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York and Providence, R.I. In many states, they have organized community associations where they discuss the situation in Liberia and adjustment to the United States. Like other refugee populations, the Liberians retain close ties to their home countries while also participating fully in U.S. society. In fact, as a country originally founded by freed American slaves and as the United States’ strongest ally in Africa, Liberia has always had a special relationship with this country.

The United States has a responsibility not only to protect those who are fleeing violence but also to allow refugees to feel secure in their new home. No one, not the Liberians or any other immigrant group, should have to worry about returning to a country where they would fear for their lives. Families with children born here would be separated if Liberian parents were forced to return, and states would bear the cost of caring for the children left behind.

While there are currently bills in both the House and Senate proposing the granting of permanent status to those Liberians who arrived in the United States after March 1991, HR1806 and S656 will require vocal public support to pass. As a matter of life and death, what happens to these people is in no way a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans coming together around these bills would demonstrate that the value of freedom and America’s reputation as a safe haven is not divided along party lines. Have we forgotten the deaths of the hundreds of Jews who were returned to Germany after being denied refuge by the United States? Do we want to relive this black moment in our history?


Melissa Bowman is a recent graduate of Brown University. She researched the Liberian situation for her senior thesis in development studies and volunteered to help refugees at the International Institute in Providence.

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