UNHCR resumes land returns to Sierra Leone after two-year break
MONROVIA, Liberia, March 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has resumed return convoys overland from Liberia to Sierra Leone in the hope that more Sierra Leonean refugees will choose to go home before assistance ceases in three months.
The first convoy left Monrovia this morning with 67 refugees. Escorted by UNHCR staff and medical personnel, they headed towards the border at Bo Waterside before crossing into Zimmi, Sierra Leone.
The refugee agency was able to resume overland convoys after UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) troops secured the route and surrounding area recently. UNHCR had suspended this return movement in April 2002, when fighting escalated in the Grand Cape Mount and Bomi counties of Liberia.
Even then, repatriation remained a priority. In the last two years, UNHCR has organised returns to Sierra Leone by commercial flights and sea vessels, even during hard times when Monrovia came under attack in mid-2003.
"We are pleased to see Sierra Leonean refugees return home as voluntary repatriation offers the best durable solution to the challenge of being a refugee," said UNHCR Representative in Liberia Moses Okello. "We are confident of the peace in Sierra Leone and we feel that every Sierra Leonean should have the opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of his country."
An estimated 13,000 Sierra Leonean refugees remain in camps around Monrovia. Another 25,000 may not be registered with UNHCR in Liberia. UNHCR hopes that more of them will register for voluntary repatriation before the cut-off date for return convoys and assistance in June. The agency has launched an information campaign to tell Sierra Leonean refugees in camps about the resumption of the twice-weekly land convoys. It believes that this option will prove more popular as the refugees had previously expressed fear of travelling by air or by sea.
Meanwhile, the reverse tide continues, with increasing numbers of Liberian refugees returning from Sierra Leone on their own. The presence of UNMIL troops around Bo Waterside has helped UNHCR to gain access to these spontaneous returnees, moving them to camps in Monrovia where they can receive proper assistance. In the last 10 days, UNHCR and UNMIL trucks have picked up at least 350 returnees from the border while another 500 have arrived on their own in Monrovia.
"We are so happy to be back home," said Liberian returnee Ma Hawa as she was helped off a truck in Monrovia. "At least we have UNHCR to help us until we can go home, so we will stay here for now."
Some 6,000 Liberian returnees were reported to have returned countrywide during the second half of 2003, and reports of new arrivals have continued to stream in this year. Many attribute their return to the presence of UNMIL and the current peace initiative in Liberia, but are still unable to return to their home areas because of prevailing insecurity.
UNHCR is currently laying the groundwork to resume operations outside Monrovia once security constraints are lifted. It has appealed for $39 million for its work in Liberia this year, including programmes to repatriate and reintegrate 150,000 returning refugees and internally displaced Liberians.
Eventually, the agency hopes to help an estimated 320,000 Liberian refugees in the region and 500,000 internally displaced Liberians to return home.