First group of refugees sails home from Ghana to Liberia
ACCRA, Ghana, Dec 16 (UNHCR) - Close to 400 Liberian refugees have sailed home from Ghana in the first sea movement of the Liberian repatriation operation. They will join other returnees in benefiting from collaborative efforts by the UN refugee agency and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to promote self-sufficiency in return communities.
On Wednesday, 385 Liberian refugees left Ghana's main port of Tema on board the MV Cerano, carrying with them livestock, personal effects, commercial bread ovens and foodstuff such as yams and sacks of peanuts. The journey is expected to last three and a half days.
The inaugural sea voyage brings to 1,385 the total number of Liberian refugees who have returned home from Ghana since UNHCR started facilitating repatriation on October 1. The majority returned on flights between Accra and Monrovia. In all, close to 2,000 Liberian refugees in Ghana have so far expressed a desire to go home.
Ghana hosts 42,034 Liberian refugees, most of whom live in Buduburam and Krisan refugee settlements, both situated along the country's coastline.
Some 70 percent of them are from Liberia's Montserrado county, with the remainder mainly from Bong county. Both counties have been declared safe by the government, using indicators such as the level of social and economic infrastructure in place, visible civil authority and the scale of spontaneous return.
With the departure of each bus headed for the airport or the harbour, Buduburam refugee settlement is awash with emotions - excitement, wariness, apprehension, happiness and anxiety.
"I'm very grateful to the people of Ghana for sharing with us. I know Liberia doesn't have much to offer us right now, but if we don't go to help rebuild it, who will? I've already heard that my house is no more, but I'll build another," said Mae Johnson, standing in the queue and waiting her turn in the repatriation process, amid tears of joy, grief and hope.
There are, however, some refugees who feel they cannot return to their homeland until the peace process, which started in August last year, has stood the test of time. Past disappointments during the 14-year civil war have taught them to be circumspect about hasty return.
Others are uncertain about their livelihood back home. "I have no family in Liberia right now. Everybody is dead. Who will be there for me? I have to finish learning a trade before I go home," said refugee Samuel Kanweh.
Empowering refugees with education and other transferable skills while in exile is therefore a key investment in peace and stability for Liberia and the region. UNHCR continues to vigorously pursue a range of efforts within the framework of the repatriation and subsequent reintegration of Liberian refugees. This includes implementing education programmes, providing support for effective instructional delivery, infrastructural development, vocational skills training and peace education for the refugee community. These efforts are essential to the agency's goal of ensuring sustainable livelihoods for returnees in Liberia.
When they first arrive back in Liberia, the returnees are provided with an assistance package comprising food, household items and basic tools to support their reintegration. Some of them receive onward transportation to their home areas while others are given a transport allowance.
In addition to this initial assistance, UNHCR and its partners are also running reintegration programmes in areas with high numbers of returnees, including Bong, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Lofa, Maryland and Nimba counties.
Last Friday, the refugee agency signed a memorandum of understanding with UNDP to coordinate efforts to help Liberia make the transition from relief and humanitarian aid to sustained recovery and development. In line with UNHCR's "4Rs" approach of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction, the two agencies will work together to form district development committees and to implement community empowerment projects aimed at helping returnees become self-sufficient.
UNHCR plans to repatriate some of the estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees in the region over the next three years.
By Needa Jehu-Hoyah in Ghana
and Sarah Brownell in Liberia