UNHCR's Grandi joins Ivorian refugees on the last leg of their journey home
Blessing Tieu, 18, felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation as she waited with her family and dozens of other Ivorian refugees to board a barge for the short passage across the Cestos River. The crossing would take her from Liberia – where she was born and had lived all her life – across to Côte d'Ivoire – a homeland she had never seen.
"I don't know anything about Côte d'Ivoire," she admitted. "I worry that not speaking French will make it hard for me to adapt. I hope people will be kind and help me learn to speak my father's language. That would allow me to continue my studies.”
Blessing’s father, Basile, 47, recalled the day in November 2002 when he fled to safety in neighbouring Liberia. "I had to walk for two days across the 47 kilometers that separated my village from the border," he said. Twenty years on, he is happy to be returning home with his wife, two children and two grandchildren, and is hopeful for the future.
"Over the years I spent in Liberia, I learned several trades, including plumbing, carpentry and masonry. I hope that this knowledge will allow me to rebuild my life and provide a better future for my children," he said.
Onboard the barge, the excitement level grows and the passengers break into song. A few minutes later, they disembark on the Ivorian side of the river to cries of “welcome back!” and "there’s no place like home!” from tearful friends and relatives who had come to meet them.
Joining them on their short but momentous journey was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. In October 2021, he recommended that asylum countries end refugee status for Ivorians following the peaceful resolution of two decades of civil conflict and instability in Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with seven regional governments, identified long-lasting solutions for all Ivorian refugees.
Grandi disembarked the barge holding the hand of one of the youngest passengers returning home, a little girl whose orange life jacket nearly reached her feet as they walked down the gangway together.
"Accompanying these Ivorians returning home holding the hand of this little girl was a very moving moment," Grandi said. "I can only wish her a magnificent future in her own country.”
The civil conflicts between 2002 and 2007 and 2011 and 2012 forced some 340,000 Ivorians to flee their country.
Since 2011, some 310,000 Ivorian refugees – ninety-six per cent of those living in West Africa, mainly in neighbouring Liberia and Ghana – have been able to return home following an improvement in the political situation. This includes some 14,000 who have returned since the start of this year with the help of UNHCR.
After disembarking, the new arrivals were taken to a transit centre at Toulepleu, where they could rest and receive cash assistance or medical services ahead of starting the final leg of their journeys back home.
For many, reintegrating in Côte d'Ivoire is not without its challenges, especially when it comes to finding housing, work and navigating various administrative procedures. To smooth the process, UNHCR has put in place a return assistance programme to help former refugees at various stages of their repatriation and reintegration.
Sea Inès Diehi, 50, was grateful for this assistance when she returned to Côte d'Ivoire in 2019 and found that her land had been occupied by other families. She received housing, cash assistance that allowed her to start a small business, and legal assistance that has enabled her to regain possession of her land.
"With a roof over my head, a way to earn a little money, and possession of my land, I can face the future with confidence," she said.
On the eve of World Refugee Day on 20 June, and with the number of people forced to flee violence and persecution worldwide recently passing an unprecedented 100 million, the High Commissioner said he had chosen to accompany former refugees back to Côte d'Ivoire to send a message of hope for what can be achieved through peace and cooperation.
"There is no greater satisfaction for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees than to see a refugee crisis end because solutions have been found," he said. "This is proof that durable solutions are possible if countries of origin, civil society, international organizations, as well as host countries work together."
As Basile and his family prepared for the final leg of their voyage home, he took a moment to express his gratitude for the safety they had found in neighbouring Liberia. “Thank you to our Liberian brothers and sisters who welcomed and supported us all these years.”
Then his thoughts returned to home, and all the possibilities that lie ahead.
“We’re finally here! Now let’s see what the future holds.”