UNHCR resumes repatriation from Guinea to Sierra Leone
KISSIDOUGOU, Guinea, Dec 2 (UNHCR) - More than 1,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea can expect to go home by the end of this year as the UN refugee agency resumes repatriation ahead of plans to gradually phase out assistance next year.
On Monday, UNHCR restarted its return programme from Guinea to Sierra Leone after a three-month break over the rainy season. Eighty-four refugees left Kissidougou in south-eastern Guinea and headed for Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone.
The relatively small convoy is due to a combination of factors, from the recently-concluded Ramadan to the upcoming festive season. Many refugees have chosen to stay for the rice harvest due to start this week, while others employed locally are waiting for their pending salaries before going home.
"We hope that the departure of this first convoy will encourage and attract more refugees to enrol for the next ones," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday.
He added that the agency is planning four return convoys involving some 1,000 refugees before Guinea closes its borders in mid-December ahead of national elections set for December 21.
Sierra Leoneans in Guinea's camps are being informed of the repatriation operation through an information campaign that includes meetings in the camps and broadcasts by a local radio station in the Kissidougou area. In particular, UNHCR is encouraging students to take advantage of this last leg of the repatriation to return in time for the start of the school year in Sierra Leone.
UNHCR believes that a large majority of the 15,000 Sierra Leoneans still remaining in Guinea's camps want to repatriate before June next year, when the agency plans to close the official repatriation.
Meanwhile, returns from Liberia continue, albeit on the small scale. On Monday, 12 Sierra Leonean refugees were flown home to Freetown. So far this year, a total of 4,067 Sierra Leonean refugees have repatriated from Liberia under very difficult circumstances, while an estimated 13,000 remain in Liberia's camps despite uncertainties in the strife-torn country.
Since late 2000, some 245,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned home with the help of UNHCR - by ship, by road, by air and even on foot in the very early stages. Encouraged by improved conditions back home as well as reconstruction and reintegration projects supported by UNHCR and other agencies, they have returned from regional countries like Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria. More may return from the Gambia before the end of the year.
In view of this, the UN refugee agency plans to gradually phase out assistance to Sierra Leonean refugees who remain outside their homeland in the second half of 2004.
In all, there are still some 73,000 Sierra Leoneans refugees in the West Africa region. Most of them are in Guinea (15,000 in camps, plus an estimated 17,000 not assisted by UNHCR) and Liberia (13,000 in camps plus an estimated 25,000 not assisted by UNHCR), while very small numbers remain in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and other countries.