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Côte d'Ivoire: addressing detainees' needs

14-01-2011 Interview

In light of the unrest in the country since 28 November, the ICRC has stepped up its regular visits to detainees. The organization has been visiting detainees in Côte d'Ivoire since 1992. In 2004, it launched a major nutrition programme to help the prison authorities address the high rate of malnutrition in some of the prisons. Valérie Aubert, the ICRC's coordinator of detention activities in Côte d'Ivoire, describes the organization's past and present role in the country's places of detention.

Valérie Aubert

In the current situation of post-electoral violence, has the ICRC been able to gain access to all detainees?

Since late November, our delegates have made regular visits to people held in connection with the post-electoral crisis, in prisons and temporary places of detention (such as police stations) all around the country, but particularly in Abidjan. When people are arrested, we are often contacted by their families. We take up these allegations of arrest directly with the authorities, with whom we have built up a relationship of trust based on a longstanding dialogue.

To date, our visits and private interviews with detainees have been generally well accepted by the detaining authorities. The ICRC's priority is to visit detainees as quickly as possible, and, depending on their wishes, inform their relatives of their detention.

Since the start of the crisis, ICRC delegates have visited more than 370 detainees and made over 300 phone calls to notify their families.

What help can you offer to people who have no news of their loved ones because of the crisis?

The ICRC has set up a 24-hour phone line. Families who have not heard from their relatives since the recent events can call and speak to a delegate. Alternatively, they can visit our delegation in the Deux Plateaux district of Abidjan, or our offices in Gagnoa, Guiglo, Man, Korhogo and Bouaké.

All calls and visits are treated in the strictest confidence. When necessary and only if the family has given permission, the ICRC requests information from the authorities on the missing relatives.

What are the main problems the ICRC has observed during its visits to detainees in Côte d'Ivoire?

The ICRC’s priority during visits is to make sure that detainees’ rights are respected and that each detainee’s basic needs are being met. In other words, ensuring that they are being treated with dignity and humanity, that they receive sufficient and nutritious food, and that they have access to appropriate health care, to drinking water and to enough living space. Detainees are also entitled to be tried as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the nutritional status of detainees in many prisons in Côte d'Ivoire, and their access to medical care, is still worrying, and even critical in some institutions. This is a chronic problem and it is exacerbated by a number of shortcomings in the prison system. Over 12,000 detainees are held in Ivorian prisons; the official capacity is 6,700. Many people are being held on remand, still awaiting trial, which contributes significantly to the overcrowding.

The ICRC remains deeply concerned about all of these humanitarian problems. It supports the prison and judicial authorities in their efforts to improve detention conditions and to speed up the judicial process.

What exactly does the ICRC’s prison nutrition programme consist of? What are its results and what is its future?

There is a high rate of malnutrition in nine Ivorian prisons. The ICRC is supporting the work of the detaining authorities by providing extra daily food rations to those suffering from malnutrition. Over 900 vulnerable detainees are currently benefiting from this programme, which is reducing the number of deaths from malnutrition in prisons and preventing any deterioration in the health of the weakest detainees.

The ICRC runs this nutrition programme in close cooperation with the prison authorities, which have primary responsibility for detainee welfare. The programme was launched in 2004, and is run in seven prisons in the south with the help of volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire, and in two prisons in the north of the country in conjunction with the Sainte Camille association. The ICRC developed a nutrition programme in the late 1990s in similar circumstances.

Given the prevailing situation in Côte d'Ivoire, the ICRC will have to continue providing food aid for these detainees. The needs may even be greater in the future.

Our assistance also includes water, sanitation and health programmes. Our teams increase access to drinking water and improve hygiene by carrying out regular campaigns to fight insect infestation.


An ICRC delegate and a team from the National Society enter the Maison d'Arrêt et Correction in Abidjan. 

An ICRC delegate and a team from the National Society enter the Maison d'Arrêt et Correction in Abidjan.
© ICRC / K. Panglungtshang

Abidjan, Maison d'Arrêt et Correction. A Red Cross volunteer helps a detainee treat insect infestation. 

Abidjan, Maison d'Arrêt et Correction. A Red Cross volunteer helps a detainee treat insect infestation.
© ICRC / K. Panglungtshang

Abidjan, Maison d'Arrêt et Correction. An ICRC delegate carries out a private interview. 

Abidjan, Maison d'Arrêt et Correction. An ICRC delegate carries out a private interview.
© ICRC / K. Panglungtshang