Guinea: Pace of Sierra Leonean repatriation quickens
The pace of repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea has quickened over the past few days as UNHCR began using a new shorter return route, raising hopes that the repatriation could be wrapped up by the end of next year. On Friday, a first convoy of 300 refugees returned to Sierra Leone on a new direct route through the previously volatile "Parrot's Beak" region. From their camps in central Guinea's Albadaria area, they travelled through southern Guinea's Guéckédou region, crossed a new causeway over the river at Dandou and arrived in north-eastern Sierra Leone's Kailahun area in less than a day. A second convoy of 500 returnees arrived in Kailahun on Sunday. Initially, the Parrot's Beak route should allow the UN refugee agency to send 500 persons on alternate days from Albadaria's camps to Kailahun. A concrete bridge should be added soon.
The Parrot's Beak region (known locally as "Languette") once hosted hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who had fled the cruel wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia since the early 1990s. In September 2000, the region became the theatre of violent cross-border attacks from Sierra Leone and Liberia, forcing UNHCR to relocate the dozens of refugee camps to a safer place in central Guinea. In December 2000, UNHCR started facilitating the return of Sierra Leonean refugees by boat from Conakry to Freetown, in a bid to discourage refugees from using the then-hazardous Parrot's Beak route. In a little over a year, 37,000 refugees were shipped back to Freetown, where they were either transported to their home areas or assisted in transit centres. In early 2001, the then new High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers visited the region to press for safe access to the refugees in the Languette and safe passage for them to areas further inside Guinea. Mr. Lubbers also encouraged the eventual opening of such land routes back to Sierra Leone, once security was in place.
Following the end of war and the April 2002 elections in Sierra Leone, convoys were set up through Kambia, north of Conakry, to reach Sierra Leone by land. The movement was shortly interrupted in June and again in November 2002 due to financial constraints. Until now, a total of 23,000 Sierra Leoneans have been brought home through this route. So far, UNHCR has helped repatriate a total of 60,776 Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea. This year, the agency hopes to assist up to another 26,000 refugees home before the start of the rainy season in June. Currently, there are still some 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in camps in Guinea. Last year, UNHCR helped more than 13,000 Sierra Leonean refugees go home from camps in Liberia. In all, the agency has assisted over 200,000 Sierra Leoneans in the region to return and settle back home since late 2000. Surrounding countries are still hosting some 100,000 Sierra Leoneans, with 73,000 in Guinea alone.