Largest UNHCR convoy since Liberian refugees began returning home

News Stories, 30 January 2006

© UNHCR/R.Goldstein-Rodríguez
UNHCR Field Assistant Bockarie Kallon assists refugees onto trucks in Sierra Leone.

BLAMA, Sierra Leone, 30 Jan (UNHCR) The largest convoy of refugees to return to Liberia since the UN refugee agency's repatriation operation began in 2004 has arrived home in the wake of this month's inauguration of the new democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"There is no war, we have a new president," said Tamba Tembe, a 45-year-old refugee from Foyatinga Village in Foya District. "I am going to go and look for my people, and build a small house for my family. The country is free now and I want to go home."

Some 560 Liberians were in the convoy that headed back to Foya District in Lofa County on 21 January. For many, it was their first glimpse of Liberia in several years. Most of the Liberian refugees had fled their country in 2000, escaping the brutal war that plagued Liberia during the rule of Charles Taylor.

The convoy, organized by UNHCR and its partners, was the largest since the start of repatriation in October 2004. The installation of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was inaugurated in a ceremony in January in Monrovia, as well as a year of peace in Liberia, has encouraged refugees to make the decision to return home.

"The high number of refugees who participated in this convoy is further indication of a strong interest in returning home at this time," said UNHCR deputy representative in Sierra Leone, Andrew Mayne. "UNHCR is committed to assisting those refugees who want to go back to Liberia to do so as soon as possible, both in safety and in dignity."

Last weekend's convoy brought the total number of people who have returned home in organized convoys since October 2004 to 6,559. The facilitated return exercise had been suspended from July to November 2005 because of the poor condition of roads and the latest convoy was only the third since the return operation resumed in late December.

It appears that after years in exile, the mood among the refugees in Sierra Leone is changing. Even though conditions in the areas they originally fled remain very challenging, many now feel more ready to go back home.

Young and old joined the convoy. One man was believed to be over 90 years old; one baby was only six months. A pregnant woman who wanted to give birth back home in Liberia luckily was in the period between the fourth and sixth months of pregnancy when travel is allowed.

Convoys now are running each week from Sierra Leone to Liberia, with returning refugees given food and various non-food items of assistance before departure. Upon arrival in Liberia, refugees receive a cash grant so they can proceed to their final destinations. A further two months of food assistance is provided to the returnees inside Liberia and UNHCR is operating programmes to assist with their reintegration into their homeland.

Sierra Leone has provided hospitality to over 60,000 refugees who fled from Liberia since 2000. Its citizens understand well the need for a place of sanctuary as they themselves were forced into exile at various times in the last decade.

Sierra Leone still hosts about 39,000 registered Liberian refugees in eight camps in the eastern and southern part of the country, where they receive UNHCR assistance, while a further 10,000 live in urban areas where they receive more limited help.

By Rachel Goldstein-Rodriguez in Blama, Sierra Leone

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UNHCR country pages

Repatriation

UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

On July 21, 2004, the final UNHCR convoy from Liberia crossed over the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone with 286 returnees. This convoy included the last of some 280,000 refugees returning home after Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war which ended in 2000. Overall, since repatriation began in 2001, UNHCR has helped some 178,000 refugees return home, with a further 92,000 returning spontaneously, without transport assistance from UNHCR.

UNHCR provided returnees with food rations and various non-food items, including jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats, soap and agricultural tools in order to help them establish their new lives in communities of origin. To promote integration of newly arrived returnees, UNHCR has implemented some 1,000 community empowerment projects nationwide. Programmes include the building and rehabilitation of schools, clinics, water and sanitation facilities, as well as micro-credit schemes and skills training.

UNHCR and its partners, alongside the UN country team and the government, will continue to assist the reintegration of returnees through the end of 2005.

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Liberia: A Neighbour's HelpPlay video

Liberia: A Neighbour's Help

Alphonse Gonglegbe fled to Liberia with his family a few months ago. He appreciates the help he's been receiving in this land neighbouring his native Côte d'Ivoire.
Liberia: Hurried FlightPlay video

Liberia: Hurried Flight

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled their villages and sought shelter in Liberia. Francis says he ran for his life and now he wants safety and food.
Liberia: Settling InPlay video

Liberia: Settling In

A dozen new shelters are built every day in Liberia's Bahn refugee camp. Eventually there will be 3,000 shelters for some of the many civilians who have fled from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.