Liberian refugees expected to flock home to Lofa county
MONROVIA, Liberia, Feb 10 (UNHCR) - Large groups of Liberian refugees in the region could head home starting next week as the UN refugee agency readies itself for repatriation to Lofa county, the biggest area of return in Liberia.
The first land convoy to Lofa county in north-western Liberia, near the borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone, is scheduled to leave Guinea on Monday, February 14. Some 100 Liberian refugees will board the trucks from Guinea's Kouankan camp, travel through Macenta border town before arriving in the transit centre in Voinjama, the capital of Lofa county.
A third of the 340,000 Liberian refugees in the region are believed to originate from Lofa county, once the breadbasket of Liberia. Guinea's Kouankan camp alone hosts 30,000 of them.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, UNHCR is also preparing for facilitated returns to Maryland county in the south-east, bordering Côte d'Ivoire. The refugee agency had earlier held off the return movement due to a curfew imposed by the government on January 22 following riots linked to alleged ritual killings.
The authorities lifted the curfew earlier this week. A UNHCR team is now assessing return options across the border in the Ivorian town of Tabou, host to more than 48,000 Liberian refugees. Convoys could start by the end of the month.
Lofa and Maryland are among the seven counties declared ready for return by the Liberian government on January 27. In all, 13 out of 15 counties have been cleared, namely Bomi, Bong, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Lofa, Margibi, Maryland, Montserrado, Nimba, River Cess and River Gee.
UNHCR has facilitated the return of some 7,200 Liberian refugees since the voluntary repatriation operation started on October 1 last year. Overland convoys arrive on a regular basis from Sierra Leone and Guinea while repatriation by sea and air are organised from Ghana and Nigeria. Another estimated 100,000 Liberian refugees returned on their own in 2004.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has called for the repatriation movement to be accelerated after he saw improved conditions on the ground when he visited Liberia last week.
Returns are expected to increase dramatically ahead of the Liberian elections in October. UNHCR plans to help more than 100,000 Liberian refugees to return from the region this year.
By Sarah Brownell