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Liberia: repatriation by sea to Sierra Leone resumes

Briefing notes

Liberia: repatriation by sea to Sierra Leone resumes

23 July 2002

UNHCR has resumed repatriation by sea of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees keen to leave Liberia, where renewed fighting has uprooted tens of thousands of people over the past few weeks. On Sunday, the MV Christmas Day, carrying 300 Sierra Leonean refugees, arrived in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, after a 24-hour trip from Monrovia.

The boat is currently on its way back to Monrovia, where it is expected to pick up 300 more people on Wednesday. It will then keep shuttling between Monrovia and Freetown, repatriating about 600 refugees a week. A total of 4,500 Sierra Leoneans have signed up to go back.

Repatriation by sea is currently the only reasonably safe way to bring the Sierra Leoneans home, as recent fighting has made overland movements unfeasible.

A rebel attack on the Sinje refugee camp one month ago sent all of its estimated 24,000 residents (11,000 refugees and 13,000 displaced Liberians) fleeing for safety towards the border or trying to reach the Liberian capital.

Road repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia had originally started in mid-February after many Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia asked UNHCR to help them to return, amid prospects for peace in their country that coincided with a deteriorating situation in Liberia. We were able to repatriate 10,848 refugees overland before the programme was suspended at the end of April because of elections in Sierra Leone and growing instability in Liberia.

Meanwhile, repatriation of Sierra Leoneans from Guinea will remain on hold for an additional two to three weeks because of financial and logistical constraints. The suspension allows our office in Sierra Leone to use the trucking capacity and other resources to transfer new Liberian refugees from border areas to existing camps in the interior of Sierra Leone and better assist Sierra Leonean returnees.

An estimated 170,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned home since late 2000 in the wake of worsening security conditions in neighbouring countries and new prospects for peace in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, UNHCR assists more than 100,000 people.

Last Saturday, the Liberian LURD (Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy) rebel commanders who are holding five NGO nurses abducted during the Sinje attack, again contacted the NGO's (MERCI) head office in Monrovia by radio. The NGO was able to speak to one of the nurses. We were relieved to hear from them after weeks of silence and we are making every effort to obtain their release.