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Liberia: UNHCR to promote voluntary repatriation following positive changes

Briefing notes

Liberia: UNHCR to promote voluntary repatriation following positive changes

17 February 2006

The positive changes that have been taking place in Liberia have prompted a UNHCR policy shift in which we will now actively promote voluntary repatriation for the estimated 160,000 Liberian refugees still outside their homeland. Until now, UNHCR has "facilitated" voluntary return, but we were not actively promoting it.

The election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in November was a milestone in a process of democratisation and stabilisation that started in Liberia more than two years ago. The new president has appealed to all Liberian refugees to come home, saying she sees their return and reintegration as a priority for her government. We agree.

Some 200,000 Liberian refugees have already gone home since former ruler Charles Taylor fled the country in August 2003. Of those, almost 50,000 came back with the help of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme, which began in October 2004. In total, more than half of the estimated 340,000 refugees registered in countries of asylum at the end of 2003 are now home.

Refugees continue to return to Liberia at an average of some 250 a day. Upon arrival, they receive assistance packages consisting of household goods, allowance for travel within the country, free education and health care in the areas of return, as well as free access to communal structures and amenities built or rehabilitated with UNHCR funds. Our staff in Liberia are satisfied that return and reintegration are taking place within the required standards of safety and dignity.

The decision to move from "facilitation" to "promotion" of voluntary repatriation for the estimated 160,000 Liberian refugees remaining in five main countries of asylum (Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) was taken by High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres after a careful review of conditions in Liberia. After more than a quarter of a century of misrule, much still remains to be done to rebuild the country. But already there has been considerable progress, notably in the areas of disarmament, security and human rights. Overall, the conditions are in place for refugees to return in their country in safety and dignity.

In practice, "promotion" means that UNHCR will not only help transport refugees who wish to return, but will also actually advocate for their return. There will be more information campaigns to update the refugees on conditions in their homeland. Refugees will be offered opportunities to visit Liberia to see the situation for themselves. Visits by prominent Liberians to refugee settlements will also be organized.

UNHCR hopes to help some 100,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa return home and reintegrate this year.