Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic Assists Liberian Refugees in Ghana

May 19, 2010
Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic students meet with Liberian refugees at Buduburam Camp in Ghana
Liberian refugees have been living in limbo, under poor conditions, with inadequate food and medical care in Ghana for years.  Now, their future is up in the air because their status as refugees is in danger of being changed. The estimated 15 - 20,000 refugees are uncertain whether the Ghanaian government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will revoke their rights as refugees.

In March, six students in Penn Law's Transnational Legal Clinic, led by Professor Sarah Paoletti and Jennifer Presholdt of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, traveled to Ghana to meet with organizations that provide services to the refugees. The Penn Law group conducted interviews with non-profit organizations, legal service agencies and United Nations representatives to learn about services to the refugees and their legal status.  They also met directly with refugees to better understand their current living situation, and to discuss directly with the refugees what short-term services and longer-term options options may be available, since there is little reliable information available to the refugees at Buduburam.

The information gathered by the Clinic will result in a white paper that will provide recommendations to inter-governmental, governmental and non-governmental groups. 

Many of the refugees have been in Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp since 1990.  The Clinic students learned there are limited options for the remaining refugees, outside of repatriation to Liberia or integration into Ghana.  Resettlement to other countries is unlikely, since most countries closed resettlement programs several years ago.

The students learned from the refugees and saw first-hand the incredible challenges the refugees face on a daily basis. There are so few services remaining at Buduburam, the refugees must pay for food, water, and use of bathroom facilities. They face an additional hurdle in obtaining employment.

Currently, the refugees can’t be hired for jobs in Ghana.  “They have a hard time finding any employment opportunities because they don’t speak the local language and they don’t have employment authorization by the Ghanaian government,” says Penn Law student, Marsha Chien.  “So they’re in a catch 22.  A refugee needs authorization to work but the employer has to sponsor the refugee for the authorization, and no employer wants to hire a refugee without work authorization.”  Also, the refugees experience discrimination from the native Ghanaians. 

The delegation also heard how difficult it would be for the remaining refugees to return to Liberia.  “Many people don’t want to go back because they’re scared and scarred and they don’t think it’s safe yet,” says Penn Law student, Nicole Sadler.  “And they have nothing to go back to.  They don’t know if the land that they had is still theirs or if other people are living on it now.”

This trip is the second time a Penn Law group has traveled to the Buduburam camp.  In 2007 Paoletti and a group of students were in Ghana to gather information from refugees about their living conditions for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  “It is always hard to be confronted with the hardship the refugees endure and their daily struggles,” Paoletti says. “But we felt it was important to return to report back on the work of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Diaspora project that they were so central to, and to get updated information on the situation at Buduburam, particularly in light of increased pressure on the Liberians to repatriate to Liberia.”

Paoletti anticipates returning to Buduburam to help ensure that refugees receive the information they need to decide their future, whether to integrate into Ghana or repatriate to Liberia.