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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Guinea: Crisis long in the making
Refugee children in Guinea
Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Guinea
The easy movement of people in West Africa - enshrined in regional treaties - has for long been commonplace - but conflicts in recent years in Sierra Leone and Liberia have stretched the patience of many in neighbouring Guinea to the limit.

Guineans are among the poorest people in West Africa and are often poorer than the refugees who live among them.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are about 330,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and another 125,000 Liberians making the refugee population in Guinea one of the largest in Africa.

So when Guinean President Lansana Conte said he wanted all the refugees rounded up and either sent home or confined to camps, he set off an outpouring of resentment against foreigners which had been building up for years.

Guinea's President Lansana Conte
Conte: Says refugees have helped dissidents
The UNHCR says the rounding up of thousands of refugees and the abuse they have been suffering at the hands of Guineans is unprecedented.

Parts of the capital, Conakry, had become a home from home for people from Freetown, who may not even have had formal refugee status, but who had the means to move their families down there when the situation in Sierra Leone became too difficult or dangerous.

Now many have left, heading back to an uncertain future in their home.

Troubled border

President Conte blames the refugees for helping armed dissidents who have led three recent raids, along Guinea's border with Liberia and Sierra Leone, which left 79 people dead.

They say the Liberian and Burkina Faso Governments and Sierra Leone rebels are backing Guinean dissidents.

There are also substantial communities of Guineans, mostly traders and small businessmen, who live in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And they have become the targets of reprisal attacks in Freetown, and threatened attacks in Monrovia.

These Guinean traders have been singled out in the past, during Liberia's own civil war, along with traders from the same tribes, but with Liberian nationality - fula and mandingo from the area near the Guinea border.

The Liberian and Sierra Leonean governments have both said they will deal severely with anyone attacking Guinean citizens.

And the Guinean security minister has said that Guinea "remained a country of hospitality and asylum for all foreigners who respect the law".

But there remains a risk that popular action could outstrip government attempts to calm the situation.

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See also:

12 Sep 00 | Africa
Guinea refugee tension rises
10 Sep 00 | Africa
No halt to Guinea crackdown
26 Jul 00 | Africa
Thousands flee Liberian fighting
12 Sep 00 | Africa
Guinea's opposition leader jailed
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