Surge in returns this year as end of refugee status for Liberians nears
MONROVIA, Liberia, June 26 (UNHCR) - Roseline Teah is one of more than 8,500 Liberians who have repatriated this year before their refugees status is revoked, a dramatic increase on figures for 2010 and 2011.
From Sunday, UNHCR and governments will no longer recognize the refugee status of those who fled to other countries during the 1989-2003 civil wars. The so-called cessation clause has been invoked because the conditions that cost the lives of 250,000 people and uprooted more than 750,000 no longer exist in Liberia, which has been peaceful for almost a decade.
"I fled to Côte d'Ivoire in 1994 with nine children but returned in 1998. I fled again in 2003 and finally returned this year with my children and grandchildren," said Teah, 48, who lost her husband and her business in the devastating civil wars. "I love my home," she added.
She returned with the help of the UN refugee agency, which has assisted 8,532 refugees to return to Liberia this year, compared to 1,278 for the whole of 2010 and 1,762 in 2011. From 2004 to 2011, UNHCR facilitated the return of 126,180 Liberian refugees by land, air and sea.
Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR's representative in Liberia, said the agency would continue to facilitate the return of about 10,000 refugees in neighbouring countries who have already registered for repatriation.
Most of those who fled Liberia during two periods of conflict sought shelter in other West Africa countries, including Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.
Aside from running a voluntary repatriation programme for these refugees, UNHCR has also supported reintegration projects, including the rehabilitation of roads and bridges, clinics and hospitals, water and sanitation facilities, educational institutions. It has also funded skills training programmes and income-generation activities.
UNHCR also gives a cash grant and a transport allowance to returnees to help them get started in their places of origin. Teah, her family's breadwinner, said the help had been vital. "I am grateful to the UNHCR for the voluntary repatriation grant we received, which has enabled me to start a used clothes business with my family," she said.
Another recent returnee, Mathias L. Kamara, said he wanted to help young people with problems, continuing work that he had started as a refugee in the Buduburam refugee settlement in Ghana.
"We want teenagers to be focused in life. During the war many teenagers lost their focus and did drugs and other vices. They did not listen to their parents," explained Kamara, who returned to Liberia earlier this month. "We want to continue with the work we were doing in Ghana because young people are the future leaders of our country."
Alex C. Grant, a former refugee in Nigeria and current chairman of the parliamentary committee on refugee issues, encouraged refugees to return. The MP came back in 1998 and was elected to his seat in eastern Liberia during last year's general election.
But for those who do not heed calls to return, UNHCR is working with the Liberian authorities to deliver national passports to refugees wishing to integrate. In addition, UNHCR is working with its partners and the authorities to offer socio-economic programmes to facilitate integration and to deliver work and residence permits to all Liberians wishing to locally integrate.
The Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission is assisting returnees by referring them to job opportunities, providing scholarships, and collaborating with ministries to absorb returnees with specific skills.
Meanwhile, Teah had a special word of thanks to those who had helped her and others in their hour of need. "I wonder what would have happened to me and my children if the UNHCR and other organizations were not there to help us refugees," she remarked.
By Sulaiman Momodu in Monrovia, Liberia