UNHCR to assist in voluntary repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia, Jan. 18 (UNHCR) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will begin repatriating Sierra Leonean refugees from camps in Liberia next month following a spate of recent spontaneous returns and repeated requests from refugees that they be helped to return home.
A registration campaign that began in six Liberian refugee camps in January has listed 2,069 repatriation candidates to date. The numbers are expected to increase substantially as the refugee agency begins to record large families rather than the one- or two-person families that have been registered thus far.
UNHCR also expects to sign a bilateral agreement with the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone ensuring the safe return of the refugees and their humane treatment once they are back in their home districts.
In the first stage of the facilitated repatriation, refugees who come from safe areas in Sierra Leone will be returned to their place of origin, while those originating from districts yet to be declared safe will be accommodated at temporary resettlement camps or in hosting communities in the south and centre of the country.
Liberia hosts a total of 38,000 assisted Sierra Leonean refugees in six camps, with an equal number spread between Lofa County and Monrovia. With the security situation in Sierra Leone improving rapidly, an increasing number of uprooted people are returning home both from Liberia and Guinea, from where over 60,000 Sierra Leoneans voluntarily returned home over the past year, including 32,000 who were helped by UNHCR.
Under a May 2000 peace agreement to end the West African country's vicious 10-year civil war, combatants have now been disarmed in the two eastern districts of Kono and Kailahun under the supervision of UNAMSIL, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. The two districts were the stage of some of the most intense battles between government forces and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who had gained control of the diamond-rich region.
In addition to improved security, many refugees are returning so they can vote in the scheduled May 2002 presidential elections.
The completion of the disarmament in the two districts is expected to open the way for a more permanent presence by UNHCR and other aid agencies. UNHCR and officials from the National Commission for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reintegration this week visited six Liberian camps in Montserrado County near the capital of Monrovia and in Grand Cape Mount County near the Sierra Leonean border to discuss the difficult conditions and limited availability of aid in eastern parts of Sierra Leone.
In the past the refugee agency has cautioned against any mass return of the refugees given the limited capacity of the camps and hosting communities in south and central Sierra Leone to absorb them.