Liberia: increased spontaneous return reported
Reports of Liberian refugees spontaneously returning to their country are becoming more frequent as the situation improves in Liberia with the deployment of UNMIL [UN Mission in Liberia] peacekeepers, and humanitarian agencies gain ground.
A group of 225 Liberians returning on their own from Ghana were rescued at sea by an UNMIL ship late last week, after UNHCR was alerted that their self-chartered boat had developed technical problems off the coast of Harper, in south-eastern Liberia. The group arrived safely in Monrovia on Saturday and returnees transported by UNHCR to their places of origin, all in the Monrovia area.
UNHCR's head of office in Nzérékoré, Guinea, reported seeing several convoys of buses transporting returnees from Ghana and having transited through Mali before reaching the Guinean border and heading into Liberia. He said the convoys were self-organised and reportedly carrying pregnant women and children in very poor conditions. Italian NGO Intersos, operating in Gbarnga (Bong County), confirmed that dozens of returnee families are reportedly settling in Gbarnga, Ganta and Saclepea, in northern Bong and Nimba counties. UNHCR currently has no access to these areas due to the still-fragile and unpredictable security situation there.
We plan to open a transit centre in Gbarnga in the very near future. The transit centre will be used for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) presently crowded in overburdened IPD camps near Monrovia, and of refugees returning from neighbouring countries.
From Sierra Leone, too, there are reports of an increasing number of returnees to Liberia, especially among the self-settled refugees near the border in Kailahun district. Others have left Gerihun refugee camp, where some clashes erupted a few weeks ago among the refugee community. UNHCR was able to confirm the presence of over 200 returnees from Gerihun in an IDP camp near Monrovia. They received a basic package of items to help them settle. That number is since reported to have increased, with as many as 2,000 possibly having left Gerihun, according to the refugees.
We are standing by to start our reintegration programme for the return of IDPs and refugees once we can resume operations in areas of return. Under the programme, we will, with our partners, rehabilitate schools and clinics, rebuild roads, and provide water and sanitary facilities in these areas. Returnees will receive food aid, farming tools, blankets, mats, corrugated iron for roofs and brick-making equipment to rebuild permanent homes.
UNHCR expects spontaneous returns to increase through the course of this year and in the run-up to the elections scheduled for the second half of 2005. We plan to start facilitating returns from the region in September, after the rainy season - pending UNMIL deployment and improved security in areas of return.
UNHCR has appealed for $39 million for its operations in Liberia this year, including programmes to repatriate and reintegrate 150,000 returning IDPs and refugees. In the longer run, the agency hopes to help an estimated 320,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa to go home.