Sierra Leonean refugees relocate to new houses in Liberia

News Stories, 22 September 2008

© UNHCR/T.W.Monboe
Some of the Sierra Leoneans getting off one of the UNHCR buses on arrival at Bensonville.

MONROVIA, Liberia, September 22 (UNHCR) A group of 16 refugee families have moved into rehabilitated houses in the Liberian town of Bensonville as part of a process to locally integrate some 3,500 Sierra Leoneans who cannot go home or are unwilling to repatriate.

"We are delighted to move into our new community in Bensonville and these beautiful, standardized buildings after living in makeshift shelters for more than a decade," said sexagenarian Musa Kamara, one of 118 people who moved to their new homes on Saturday from the Banjor and Samukai camps. Thirty-two houses have been renovated at Bensonville with UNHCR funding.

Some of the refugees had spent their last morning of camp life in demolishing their old camp homes to deter squatters from moving in. Others loaded their belongings onto UNHCR trucks for the 60-kilometre journey to Bensonville, capital of Liberia's Montserrado County.

A rain shower did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm. They received a warm welcome in Bensonville, where locals sang, leaped and danced as the trucks rolled in. "This makes me determined to contribute to the development of this new community where the future of my children will be forged," said mother-of-six Umu Kumakoi as she inspected her new home.

UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Sharon Cooper told the Sierra Leoneans to no longer consider themselves as refugees. She said they were now on the road to becoming permanent Liberian citizens and should work in harmony with locals to develop their new community.

A Sierra Leonean diplomat attending Saturday's welcome ceremony said he was happy that the local integration process was moving forward for this group of people. He also noted that Liberia's late President William Tolbert had come from the area and that he was a close friend of the late Sierra Leonean leader, Siaka Stevens. "It is the continuation of that bond of friendship," Mohamed Alusine Sesay said.

As part of the local integration process, a further 110 houses are under construction, including 50 in Bensonville and 60 in the nearby town of Memeh.

During the height of the 1991-2002 conflict in Sierra Leone as many as 2 million of the country's 6 million people were displaced, with some 490,000 fleeing to Liberia and Guinea. Under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation from September 2000 to July 2004, more than 179,000 Sierra Leoneans returned home. Many others went back by their own means.

Last June, UNHCR announced that as of the end of this year Sierra Leoneans who fled their country in the 1990s will no longer be considered refugees since the root causes of the refugee problem in Sierra Leone no longer exist. The decision was based on fundamental and positive durable changes in Sierra Leone since a peace agreement was declared in January 2002.

By Oscar Nkulu in Monrovia, Liberia