UNHCR starts boat returns for Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia, July 22 (UNHCR) - More than 300 Sierra Leonean refugees sailed home on Saturday from war-ridden Liberia in the first sea movement organised by UNHCR to repatriate Sierra Leonean refugees desperate to go home.
The sea vessel, MV Christmas Day, left the port of Freeport in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, on Saturday and docked in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, on Sunday evening.
A second group of returnees to Sierra Leone is expected to embark on the 24-hour voyage early this week. The UN refugee agency plans to take more than 500 refugees home each week in boat movements to be organised twice a week.
In the aftermath of a June 20 rebel attack on Sinje refugee camp - some 80 km north-west of Monrovia - and spiralling violence in the area, thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees fled either to neighbouring Sierra Leone or to five camps close to the Liberian seaside capital in search of UNHCR's assistance to return home.
Of the 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees still in Liberia, 4,500 have registered for repatriation. The refugee agency anticipates an increase in the number of refugees wishing to return home once the sea movement picks up.
A voluntary return programme by road was launched from Liberia in mid-February this year but was suspended at the end of April ahead of the mid-May elections in Sierra Leone, which saw the country close its borders for a few days as voting took place. The road convoys had transported 10,848 refugees before the programme's suspension.
Organised repatriation did not resume in June as planned, as the only road linking Liberia with Sierra Leone was cut off by fierce fighting between government forces and the dissident Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). The fighting drew close to the Liberian capital. Both Sinje camp and the road are now lying within the area of conflict as the war continues between the government and rebels.
In the meantime, UNHCR remains very concerned about the safety of thousands of refugees who remain unaccounted for after the attack on Sinje. Before the attack, the camp hosted more than 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, as well as some 13,000 displaced Liberians who had fled an upsurge in fighting in the north of the country.
UNHCR fears that the missing refugees may have gone into villages and bushes close to Sinje and are unable to make their way to Sierra Leone or to Monrovia due to continuing fighting.
UNHCR also remains extremely worried about the situation of five Liberian nurses who were abducted by LURD rebels during the raid on Sinje. The nurses had been working for the non-governmental organisation, Merci, when they were taken hostage. The refugee agency continues to appeal for their release.
In the last three months, more than 32,000 Liberian refugees and 4,000 Sierra Leonean returnees have arrived in Sierra Leone through a number of border crossings on the country's south-eastern border. The arrival rate of the refugees and returnees has, however, dropped significantly from 200 a day at the beginning of July to about 20 a day last week.