UNHCR's Sierra Leone repatriation draws to end
21 July 2004
GENEVA - The UN refugee agency's huge repatriation programme for Sierra Leonean refugees is drawing to a close today with the last of some 280,000 refugees returning home since the decade-long conflict ended in 2000.
The final UNHCR convoy from Liberia crossed over the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone on Wednesday carrying 286 refugees. A last convoy of 329 returnees left Guinea today and will arrive in Sierra Leone tomorrow.
Officially, UNHCR's assisted voluntary repatriation programme was to end on 30 June, but because of a late surge in demand from refugees in Liberia to return home, the programme was extended to late July 2004.
The pace of returns to Sierra Leone had picked up markedly in recent months as the refugees, mainly sheltering in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea, rushed to get home before UNHCR's repatriation programme ended.
An estimated 120,000 Sierra Leoneans fled to Liberia during the war, and 370,000 to Guinea
"It is enormously encouraging to see such large numbers of refugees have returned home to Sierra Leone with a keen determination to rebuild their lives after living for nearly a decade in refugee camps in surrounding countries," said High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers.
Lubbers, who has made several missions to West Africa, has placed particular emphasis on finding lasting solutions for so-called "protracted refugee situations" in which people have remained uprooted for years and even decades. Although the overall number of people of concern to UNHCR has declined from 21.8 million at the start of 2001 to 17.1 million at the beginning of this year, there are still 38 protracted refugee situations worldwide involving an estimated 6.2 million people who have been displaced for five or more years.
Some 25,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have repatriated since the start of this year, mainly from Guinea and Liberia, but also in smaller numbers from other countries like Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and the Gambia. Overall, since the repatriation began in 2001, UNHCR has assisted some 178,000 refugees return home with a further 92,000 preferring to find their own way back to Sierra Leone.
An estimated 15,000 refugees from Sierra Leone have opted to stay in their host countries and integrate locally. In the countries with larger numbers of refugees deciding to stay, UNHCR will help with integration through community based projects.
Returnees who repatriated with UNHCR assistance first stopped at way stations in Sierra Leone to receive food rations, non-food items and agricultural tools to help them establish their new lives in communities of origin.
"There are many challenges ahead for the returnees as they reintegrate back into their communities, particularly for those refugees who suffered appalling mutilation during the war," said the High Commissioner.
UNHCR and its partners, alongside the UN country team and the government, will assist reintegration through various community projects through the end of 2005. These small-scale projects range from skills training and construction of local health clinics and wells to the upgrading of schools.
UNHCR's field offices in Sierra Leone will remain open to assist the return of some 55,000 Liberian refugees expected to go home when UNHCR's Liberian voluntary repatriation programme gets underway throughout West Africa in October this year.