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UNHCR rushes to cope with Liberian exodus to Sierra Leone

UNHCR rushes to cope with Liberian exodus to Sierra Leone

Some 6,600 people from Liberia have arrived through the Gendema border crossing in Sierra Leone in recent days. Many more are coming through unofficial border points, putting a strain on existing camps and waystations.
27 June 2002
Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone. There have been more than 6,600 new arrivals in recent days.

ZIMMI, Sierra Leone, June 27 (UNHCR) - The number of people fleeing Liberia through the Gendema border in Sierra Leone has hit 6,600 in a week, with some of them arriving in bad shape. Many more have entered the country through unofficial border points as UNHCR rushes to cope with the influx.

On Thursday, more than 600 refugees arrived through the Gendema border crossing, bringing the total number of recent arrivals to 6,600. Of these, 5,000 are Liberian refugees and 1,600 are Sierra Leoneans returning home because of the insecurity in Liberia.

Many of them had fled Liberia when rebels affiliated to the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) attacked Sinje refugee camp on June 20. In recent days, however, Liberians from other villages in Grand Cape Mount and Lofa counties have also fled to Sierra Leone amid fears of renewed fighting in the area.

Some of them are arriving in Sierra Leone in bad shape, with increasing numbers of vulnerable people, including several babies born in the bushes in the last few days. Having walked for days and hidden in the jungle, the refugees arrive exhausted, with bruised bodies and swollen feet. They also have to guard against looting of personal belongings, which is common in the border area. UNHCR's protection staff and nurses from partner NGO MSF-Belgium are there to meet them with as much assistance as possible.

An MSF nurse from the mobile medical team who visited the unofficial border points of Dia, Bombo and others, reported seeing hundreds of refugees camping by the river in each location, requesting assistance and transportation. These refugees were advised to make their way to the Zimmi-Gendema road so that they can be picked up.

Further north in Kailahun district, over 2,000 refugees have been reported arriving since June 16. Most of them have been taken inland to Buedu makeshift camp to await transfer. This camp has been housing regular arrivals of Liberians, most of whom have already been transferred. At present, 3,000 Liberians are waiting to be transferred.

UNHCR in Zimmi is working to quickly relocate the new arrivals away from the border, but it is difficult to keep up the pace with the large numbers arriving every day. The makeshift camp in Gendema is still housing over 2,000 people. The waystation in Zimmi - the first stop after the border - is also overstretched, housing more than 1,500 people in a camp that was designed to house 800. The refugee agency expects that additional arrivals will further stretch the camp's capacity.

With the help of 135 trucks from UNAMSIL (the UN mission in Sierra Leone) and PAE (Pacific Architects and Engineers), UNHCR is sending daily convoys from Zimmi to the five existing camps in Bo district - Jembe, Gerihun, Jimmi Bagbo, Taiama and Bandajuma - which together can host a total of 33,000 refugees/returnees. Altogether, these camps already host 23,000 refugees and 1,500 returnees, which leaves space for an additional 9,500. Plans are quickly being developed for the building of a sixth site at Gondama, also in Bo district, to host 15,000 if needed.

The refugee agency estimates that more than 40,000 Liberian refugees have sought refuge in Sierra Leone since last year.

Meanwhile, in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, people from the Sinje region continue to arrive in small groups at a constant pace. All of them are being transferred to one of the five existing camps around Monrovia. The Liberian government is supporting UNHCR in trying to assure the security of these displaced people. The refugee agency is still exploring options to facilitate the repatriation by sea of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia as soon as possible. As of Thursday afternoon, 1,945 Sierra Leoneans had signed up for repatriation.

Late Wednesday afternoon, UNHCR received through media sources a statement from a LURD spokesman that said the five nurses who were kidnapped after the Sinje camp attack were safe and well. In the statement, LURD said: "The leadership of LURD is pleased and willing to assist the aid workers reach the nearest United Nations or relevant international organisations' offices at any time."

UNHCR has said it is extremely relieved by this message, and is anxiously looking forward to receiving more detailed information.