First group of Sierra Leoneans flies home since Liberia peace deal
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Oct 30 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has resumed the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia to Sierra Leone by airlifting 10 families into Freetown's Lungi international airport on Wednesday.
This was the first organised return movement since a peace agreement was signed on August 18 between the Liberian government and two rebel movements.
Wednesday's returnees had been living in camps around the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Arriving at the airport in Freetown, they were briefed by UNHCR and its government counterpart, the National Commission for Social Action, on what to do for the rest of their journey home. Other non-governmental organisations like the Red Cross and Save the Children UK were present to provide assistance like food and water.
The returnees also received a repatriation package with relief items, a transport allowance of about $9 and a four-month food ration before leaving for their home areas in Bo, Kailahun, Pujehun and Kenema districts on convoys organised by UNHCR and its German partner agency, GTZ.
UNHCR is working with the World Food Programme to organise twice-weekly flights for up to 40 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia per week.
There are still some 14,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in Liberia's camps. Since 2001, close to 66,300 refugees have gone back to Sierra Leone from Liberia with UNHCR assistance. This year, despite the recurring fighting, the agency has helped more than 4,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to return home by sea and air.
The airlift operation was launched on February 28, flying 909 Sierra Leonean refugees from Monrovia's camps home on 20 flights so far. The sea repatriation started on July 4 on the MV Overbeck, but the exercise was suspended twice due to the heavy fighting in Monrovia.
UNHCR is also exploring the possibility of overland repatriation through Pujehun district. Various assessment missions have been conducted from Monrovia to the border area with Sierra Leone. Details will be discussed next week between the UNHCR's offices in Freetown and Monrovia.
A mass information campaign will also unfold next week to encourage Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia to go home voluntarily. UNHCR hopes to complete the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from neighbouring Liberia and Guinea by the end of June 2004.