Last convoys leave for Sierra Leone as assisted repatriation ends
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, July 21 (UNHCR) - The last convoys back to Sierra Leone left neighbouring Liberia and Guinea today, ending a huge UNHCR operation that has helped some 178,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to go home.
On Wednesday, a final convoy of 329 Sierra Leonean refugees left Guinea for home while from Liberia, a last convoy of 286 crossed the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone.
The UN refugee agency's repatriation programme to Sierra Leone had been scheduled to end on June 30, but was extended to late July to accommodate thousands of refugees rushing to repatriate at the last minute.
UNHCR had been informing Sierra Leonean refugees in neighbouring countries about the June 30 cut-off date over the last year, holding mass information campaigns about conditions at home and their options for return.
The pace of returns to Sierra Leone picked up markedly in the months leading up to the deadline. Wednesday's returnees joined some 25,000 others who have gone back to Sierra Leone this year.
An estimated 120,000 people fled to Liberia and another 370,000 to Guinea over the course of the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone that ended in 2000. Since starting its voluntary repatriation programme in 2001, UNHCR has helped some 178,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to go home. Another 92,000 have returned on their own.
"It is enormously encouraging to see such large numbers of refugees have returned home to Sierra Leone with a keen determination to rebuild their lives after living for nearly a decade in refugee camps in surrounding countries," said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers.
"There are many challenges ahead for the returnees as they reintegrate back into their communities, particularly for those refugees who suffered appalling mutilation during the war," he added.
Returnees coming back on UNHCR convoys first stopped at way stations in Sierra Leone to receive food rations, relief items and agricultural tools to help them start up in their home areas.
In the longer-term, UNHCR and its partners, together with the Sierra Leonean government, will implement various community projects to promote reintegration through to the end of 2005. These small-scale projects include skills training, the construction of local health clinics and wells, and the upgrading of schools.
An estimated 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have opted to stay and integrate locally in their host countries. UNHCR will help with integration through community-based projects in countries with larger numbers of these refugees.
The refugee agency's offices in Sierra Leone will remain open to assist the return of some 55,000 Liberian refugees who are expected to go home when the voluntary repatriation programme starts in October this year.