Brice Kouewon, 34, has spent a third of his life as a refugee in Liberia. He first left Côte d'Ivoire for over a decade with his parents and then fled to Liberia again, this time with his children.
Now the father of four is in the back of the truck that will bring him home.
“I have no words to describe what I feel,” he says. “The kids too are very happy because they will find their grandparents on the other side.”
Brice and his family are among 5,000 Ivorian refugees who have received assistance from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to voluntarily return home from various locations in Liberia since late August.
Every week, three convoys carrying between 150 and 200 Ivorian refugees leave Toe Town, Liberia, where Brice found refuge, for Toulepleu, the nearest Ivorian town.
The assisted return campaign is part of a process that will end refugee status for the vast majority of Ivorians who have fled political unrest in their country over the past 20 years.
Côte d’Ivoire went through two civil wars between 2002 and 2007 and between 2011 and 2012, that forced some 340,000 Ivorians to flee their country. Although another 34,000 fled from mid-2020 until early 2021 fearing violence linked to presidential and parliamentary elections, the political situation in Côte d’Ivoire has largely stabilized over the past decade, causing some 290,000 Ivoirian refugees living in West Africa, mostly in neighbouring Liberia and Ghana, to voluntarily return home.
Augustine Blo, 33, was one of them. Born with a disability, she fled Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. Her husband died in Liberia, and she returned to Côte d’Ivoire as a single parent of four children in 2016. Her situation was very precarious, but in 2018 she received help – including a house and enough money to start a small business – through a reintegration programme run by UNHCR.
“Everything I sell helps me raise my children,” she says. “We eat well and sleep well. The kids go to school and if one of them is sick, I can take them to the hospital.”
UNHCR provides every returnee, including children, who left due to the civil wars between 2002 and 2012 with 305,000 CFA (US$540). Those who left between 2020 and 2021 receive 75,000 CFA ($130).
UNHCR has also funded the opening of chicken, pig and fish farming cooperatives that benefit both returnees and members of their host communities.
Reintegration is not without its problems, however. In their absence, land belonging to many refugees has been occupied by other families.
Paul Bah, 71, left for Liberia in 2010 but returned in 2012 to try to reclaim his 1,000-hectare cocoa plantation. Those who were occupying it attacked his relatives with machetes, seriously injuring several of them, and kidnapped his employees.
“I took legal action,” he says. “We had one hearing after another for years. Our case stayed seven years in court until it was decided in our favour. But the defenders went to the Court of Appeal. It lasted two more years before the court ruled in our favour again.”
The two families finally reached an agreement. The legal owners, Paul’s family, now rent half of their land to those who occupied it.
Based on an analysis of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire, and consultations with the government and with host country governments, UNHCR has determined that the circumstances that led Ivorians to flee their country have ceased to exist and is advising an end to refugee status for most Ivorians.
The 1951 Refugee Convention sets out the conditions under which refugee status should end under so-called cessation clauses.
Speaking at the start of UNHCR’s annual Executive Committee on 4 October, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi recommended that an end to refugee status for Ivorians take effect on 30 June 2022.
He expressed gratitude towards the governments of Côte d'Ivoire, as well as those of Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania and Togo, for demonstrating the political will to implement solutions for Ivorian refugees.
“This regional effort deserves the applause of the entire international community,” he said, adding that UNHCR stands ready to strengthen its support to States in the region as they implement the cessation clause, particularly by helping to ensure Ivorians have the documentation they need to either return home or stay in their host country.
There currently remain 91,000 Ivorian refugees and asylum seekers. Some 51,000 live in West Africa – the majority in Liberia – and 22,000 are in Europe.
A survey conducted in the region shows that 60 per cent of the refugees plan to repatriate, 30 per cent are still undecided and 10 per cent want to stay in their host country and apply for permanent residency or naturalization.
Those who still consider themselves at risk if they return can request an exemption from the cessation procedure.
Brice and his family are greeted by shouts of joy when they arrive in Klobli, their home village. Even the news that a third of their cocoa plantation is now occupied by another family does not tarnish their happiness.
“We can call on the authorities: the village chief and the subprefect. We can reach out to file a complaint,” says Brice.
“Even if our house is not in good shape, thanks to the financial support I received, I will be able to fix it.”