UNHCR ends Liberian operation after helping more than 100,000 go home

News Stories, 2 July 2007

© UNHCR/S.Brownell
Weary but happy Liberians clamber off lorries that brought them back home at the end of UNHCR's Liberian reptriation programme.

MONROVIA, Liberia, 2 July (UNHCR) A convoy of trucks carrying 798 refugees crossed the border from Sierra Leone at the weekend marking the end of the UN refugee agency's successful Liberian repatriation programme.

UNHCR, which has repatriated more than 105,000 returnees since October 2004, will still be involved in projects in Liberia aimed at easing the reintegration of returnees.

"The Liberian repatriation has been one of the largest UNHCR operations in Africa in recent years," said Mengesha Kebede, deputy director of UNHCR's Africa bureau. "With the end of the Sierra Leonean repatriation in 2004, the successful completion of the Liberia operation marks the end of large-scale repatriation programmes in the West Africa region."

The last convoy crossed into Liberia at the Bo Waterside border point under drizzling rain on Saturday. But the weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of the returnees, who quickly disembarked from the trucks when they reached the Sinji transit centre in Liberia's Grand Cape Mount county.

"I am tired of being a being a refugee, so I have come back home to join my husband," said Sinoe Ballah, who fled her country in 2003 and stayed on in Sierra Leone to give birth last month to twin girls.

While Ballah was on the last convoy, others returned earlier Saturday from other parts of Africa. Another UNHCR convoy from Sierra Leone took 474 Liberians back to their homes in Lofa county, while 267 refugees came home overland from Côte d'Ivoire. Flights from Nigeria and Ghana landed in Monrovia with 85 and 71 Liberian returnees respectively.

UNHCR's announcement that its repatriation programme would cease at the end of last month led to a surge of returns in June, when more than 5,000 people opted to go back with the refugee agency's assistance.

More than 350,000 Liberians fled the civil war raging in their country from 1989 to 2003. The conflict devastated the infrastructure and economy and left an estimated 200,000 people dead and more than 800,000 internally displaced.

To date, more than 150,000 refugees have returned to Liberia. In addition to over 100,000 returns assisted by UNHCR, half of which came from the neighbouring Guinea, some 50,000 registered Liberian refugees returned home on their own. They were encouraged by the restoration of peace and inauguration of the democratically elected president.

"Without being complacent, one can say that the repatriation operation to Liberia was a success," said Salif Kagni, the head of the UNHCR field office in Nzérékoré in neighbouring Guinea.

In Liberia, UNHCR has been also involved in the return of some 326,000 internally displaced persons to their areas of origin. This programme was successfully completed in April 2006. Internally displaced Liberians had been living in camps, mainly around the capital, Monrovia.

This success story was possible because of the unambiguous wish of the Liberian refugees to return, the commitment of the Liberian government to bring its people back home, the efforts of UNHCR and other partners and the support of all countries in the West African region.

The Liberian repatriation has been a demanding logistical operation involving returns by air, sea and road from all the neighbouring countries and further afield in the region. Upon arrival, refugees have been provided with a transportation grant, food and a number of household items.

Reintegration and improvement of livelihoods for returnees have been long-term key priorities for UNHCR and its partners, who have been repairing shelters, roads, water wells, schools and clinics as well as providing vocational training programme.

As the next step, UNHCR and those countries still hosting thousands of Liberian refugees are preparing to start long-term projects aimed at achieving their local integration. The purpose of these projects will be to bring the main displacement chapter in the West African region to a successful closure.

There are still some 80,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa. More than 23,000 remain in Ghana, 22,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, 13,000 in Sierra Leone, 14,000 in Guinea and 5,000 in Nigeria. The rest are scattered in other nearby countries.

By Sarah F. Brownell in Monrovia, Liberia

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UNHCR country pages

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

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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.