UNHCR repatriates 298 Liberian refugees by sea from Ghana

A group of 298 Liberian refugees have set sail for home from Ghana aboard a chartered passenger vessel. The Gambia-registered Brenda Corlett set sail from the port of Tema on Thursday night and was expected to take four days to reach the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Liberian refugees on a deck of the Brenda Corlett, which sailed out of Tema in Ghana yesterday carrying 298 returnees to Liberia.   © UNHCR/N.Jehu-Hoyah

TEMA, Ghana, July 28 (UNHCR) - After unexpected delays, almost 300 Liberian refugees have finally set sail for home from Ghana aboard a chartered passenger-cargo vessel. The Gambia-registered Brenda Corlett set sail from the port of Tema on Thursday night and was expected to reach the Liberian capital, Monrovia, within four days.

It was the first such return by sea since UNHCR began in February to actively promote voluntary repatriation of Liberian refugees, but there have been three other repatriations by ship from Ghana since UNHCR launched its voluntary repatriation programme in October 2004.

The departure of the 298 Liberians brings the number of people repatriated with UNHCR assistance from Ghana to some 3,800. Others have gone home by air.

The refugees were clearly happy to be going back to a country just starting to recover from years of conflict and devastation. "I really feel happy to be going home. I have not seen my parents for 14 years and finally I will see them," said 28-year-old John Washington, who had worked at a hotel while in Ghana.

Like most of the other refugees boarding the Brenda Corlett, he had lived in the sprawling Buduburam settlement near the Ghanaian capital of Accra.

Washington, who moved to Ghana in 1995 after two years of refuge in Côte d'Ivoire, was realistic about the difficulties he could face in Liberia, where work on rebuilding the shattered economy and infrastructure is only just beginning. "You have to go and look for it [work] and you'll find it. It can be hard, but you'll find it," he said.

UNHCR's representative in Ghana, Aida Haile Mariam, told a dockside press conference that chartering a boat meant the refugees could take home the belongings and possessions they had accumulated during their years in exile. Some had been in Ghana for 16 years.

Mariam also alluded to the challenges ahead for the refugees. "More progress is still needed in Liberia to bring it back to its former glory. But with the civic spirit evident with the departure of these refugees today, we are assured that a complete recovery will be attained," she said.

UNHCR had hoped to organise the return in mid-June, but the trip was delayed. Some of the refugees said they were relieved to be finally leaving.

Mariam said the repatriation programme would "continue with a combination of safe sea and air transportation from Ghana to Liberia, with the air movements being specifically for refugees with special needs. "

On arrival in Monrovia, the UN refugee agency will provide the returnees with an assistance package including food, household items and basic tools to support their reintegration. They will also be given opportunities for skills training.

UNHCR has helped some 73,000 Liberian refugees return home from around the region since 2004. The repatriation programme will continue until June 2007. The next planned movement from Ghana will be an air charter for refugees with special needs next week, to be followed by another sea movement the following week.

Ghana hosts some 38,000 Liberian refugees, who form the majority of the approximately 54,000 refugees in the country.

By Needa Jehu-Hoyah in Tema, Ghana