Sierra Leone: repatriation from Guinea resumes
Repatriation to Sierra Leone resumed this weekend from Guinea after a three-month interruption due to the rainy season. A convoy of 84 refugees left Kissidougou, in south-eastern Guinea, on Sunday, heading for Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone. The convoy overnighted in Mamou transit centre last night (Monday) and crossed the border at Pamelap, north of Conakry, this morning before spending a second night in Sierra Leone's Kambia district and crossing the country in a diagonal direction from west to east on Wednesday.
The relatively small number of refugees on this first convoy is due to a number of factors, including the recently-ended Ramadan and fast-approaching festive season. In addition, the rice harvest is due to begin this week and some refugees employed locally in Guinea are still awaiting their final salaries. However, we hope that the departure of this first convoy will encourage and attract more refugees to enrol for the next ones.
UNHCR is planning four more convoys of about 250 persons each before Guinea's borders close one week in advance of national elections set for December 21. The next convoy will depart tomorrow (Wednesday) to Kailahun. An information campaign that includes meetings in the camps and broadcasts by a local radio station in the Kissidougou area is providing news about the repatriation programme to the remaining Sierra Leoneans in Guinea. In particular, we are encouraging students to take advantage of this last leg of the repatriation and return in time for the beginning of the school year in Sierra Leone.
A large majority of the 15,000 Sierra Leoneans still remaining in camps in Guinea are believed to want to repatriate before June next year, the planned cut-off date for the official repatriation.
Since the end of the year 2000, about 245,000 Sierra Leoneans in total have returned home with the help of UNHCR, by ship, by road, by air and even on foot in the very early stages. The have returned from various asylum countries in the region, including 27,000 from Guinea this year as well as from Liberia, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria. Some may return from the Gambia before the end of the year.
In view of the numerous opportunities offered for repatriation since 2000, and the improved situation in Sierra Leone itself, which is now supported by a number of reconstruction and reintegration projects from UNHCR and other agencies, we are planning to start gradually phasing out assistance to Sierra Leonean refugees in all countries of asylum in the second half of 2004.
Repatriation has also been continuing in small numbers from Liberia by air. In the latest flight yesterday, 12 Sierra Leonean refugees were returned to Freetown. A total of 4,067 Sierra Leonean refugees have been returned from Liberia so far this year, mostly by boat in extremely difficult conditions. UNHCR is still hoping to resume repatriation by road, as soon as the fragile security and road conditions will allow. We estimate there are some 13,000 Sierra Leonean refugees remaining in camps in Liberia. But a number of them are not showing much enthusiasm for repatriation in a country that is still torn by sporadic fighting and where our operating space has again narrowed in recent weeks due to security constraints.
In all, a total of about 73,000 Sierra Leoneans are still scattered across the West Africa region, two and a half years after the official end of a brutal, 10-year civil war in their country. 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.