Liberia: third convoy brings Sierra Leoneans home
The third convoy carrying Sierra Leonean returnees back from Liberia reached the town of Zimmi in the southern district of Pujehun on Tuesday, bringing to 244 the number of Sierra Leoneans who have been assisted home by UNHCR since the land route was reopened on March 2. The third convoy carried 53 families, totalling 124 refugees. They cheered as they crossed the Mano River Bridge separating Liberia and Sierra Leone. Many of those who returned had fled Sierra Leone during the first outbreak of war in 1991. Their children have never seen Sierra Leone and speak Liberian English
Land repatriation was suspended in April 2002, after Liberia's LURD rebels took control of some areas along the road leading from Monrovia to the Sierra Leonean border. For nearly two years, and even at the height of the conflict in Liberia, UNHCR made every effort to continue with the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans by ship and by air. Two weeks ago, land repatriation was able to resume following the deployment of UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) troops along the road to the border.
There are an estimated 12,000 Sierra Leonean refugees remaining in the camps in Liberia. UNHCR hopes to repatriate a majority of them before the cut-off date of June 2004, with up to twice weekly convoys.
Upon arrival at the Zimmi Way Station, returnees are each given supplies and vaccinations which require a seven-day quarantine before they can proceed to their home areas.
UNHCR is also continuing with the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from refugee camps in Guinea through the Belu river crossing point in the Parrot's Beak region into the Sierra Leonean border town of Kailahun, and through Kambia. So far a total of 4,856 individuals have been repatriated in 2004. A mass information team drawn from several of our offices in Sierra Leone as well as former returnees from Guinea, now settled back in their country, and representatives of UNHCR's Government counterpart, the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA) left for Guinea on 25 February with the aim of providing refugees in Guinea with accurate and detailed information on developments in areas of return, hoping to restore the confidence of the refugees who may still be reluctant to end their exile.
Meanwhile, UNHCR is monitoring several border crossings between Sierra Leone and Liberia. We have observed that an increasing number of LIberians are returning to Liberia from Sierra Leone. They cite a camp for internally displaced persons as their final destination. In the last week of February alone, more than 1,400 Liberians were recorded crossing back into Liberia at the Zimmi border point, the same where convoys are crossing with returnees to Sierra Leone.
Other border points are being monitored in the Kailahun district, north of Zimmi. In the second half of February, a total of 2,048 individuals were reported to have crossed back into Liberia at two border points. These spontaneous returns are mostly composed of refugees who were self-settled in communities along the border. Only 355 individuals had left the camps in Sierra Leone.
There are some 55,000 Liberian refugees still in camps in Sierra Leone. Many others continue to move back and forth, taking advantage of the food distribution in Sierra Leone and then returning to Liberia with their food supply.
In Liberia, UNHCR has so far assisted over 800 returnees with transport from the Zimmi border to Monrovia. Some of them are able to join relatives in Monrovia, but many remain in a displaced situation. We are assisting a fast evolving number of nearly 4,000 returnees from Sierra Leone, currently hosted at the Perry Town way station and Siegbeh displaced camp near Monrovia, and have had to embark on construction of additional reception and accommodation facilities at the way station. We also continue to receive reports of other spontaneous returns in other parts of Liberia.