Third UNHCR convoy leaves Liberia with Sierra Leonean refugees
MONROVIA, Liberia, Feb. 18 (UNHCR) - A third convoy operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees left the Sinje camp near Monrovia Monday with 311 Sierra Leoneans returning home amid renewed conflict in Liberia.
The 11-truck convoy departed for the town of Zimmi, near the southern border with Liberia, where the returnees are scheduled to spend the night before being taken to their final destinations.
Some 6,500 Sierra Leoneans have returned spontaneously from Liberia during the past week as fighting intensified in the West African country between government troops loyal to President Charles Taylor and rebels belonging to Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. In addition, Sierra Leonean immigration officials estimate that some 7,853 Liberians have crossed into the country's southern region during the past week.
The exodus of the refugees and thousands of Liberians was spurred last week after the rebels struck the town of Klay Junction, just 35 kilometres from Monrovia. Shooting was also heard in the vicinity of the two Sinje refugee camps 90 kilometres north-west of the capital.
The fighting spurred the 38,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in six camps in Liberia to try to return to their country, where a vicious ten-year civil war officially ended only last month. While initially 6,218 refugees registered to return with UNHCR in January before the fighting widened, "all refugees are now willing to go," according to Moses Okello, the agency's representative in Liberia.
UNHCR said its convoys from Sinje will run every other day this week, adding that only a limited number of refugees have been transported thus far because of the large amounts of luggage the returnees are bringing with them. Once repatriation from Sinje is completed, the U.N. refugee agency will begin moving those in other camps. Some near the seaside city of Monrovia to be taken back by boat.
In addition to the Sierra Leonean refugees, there are large numbers of internally displaced Liberians in many areas around the capital, including in the refugee camps originally established for the Sierra Leoneans. Although their numbers are fluctuating daily, the Voice of America (VOA) camp near Monrovia is reported to be currently hosting between 5,000 and 6,000 displaced persons in addition to the 8,700 refugees who were already there.
The Liberian government's agency for the displaced is this week scheduled to undertake a global registration of the displaced populations, including those in the refugee camps.
In Sierra Leone itself, UNHCR dispatched the second group of 250 returnees from Sinje, who had reached the Blama way station near Kenema in central Sierra Leone on Friday, to their final destinations. Some may be going home to safe areas, with an assistance package from UNHCR and other agencies, which includes food for two months, blankets, kitchen sets and other materials. Others will be offered transport to a place of their choice or to existing settlements for returning refugees.
Since the fighting intensified, Liberian refugees have been entering the Pujehun and Kailahun districts in southern and eastern Sierra Leone in greater numbers. UNHCR has set up a small office in Zimmi near the southern border with Liberia to look after the Liberian influx. On Saturday, a first convoy was organised for Liberian refugees from Jendema to the Jembe settlement near Kenema. Other convoys will run every day this week for both refugees and returnees.
The U.N. Peacekeeping Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) has agreed to assist with the transportation of the refugees. UNHCR in Sierra Leone is currently reviewing the reception capacity in different settlements to accommodate the sudden influx of newcomers.
The agency has set up a refugee camp in Jimi Bagbo, which is already hosting 5,000 Liberians. The Sierra Leonean government has agreed to let the agency use former demobilisation sites in Bo and Kenema districts as transit facilities for the Liberians. Previous returnee sites, like Bandajuma, in the Bo district, could also be used as new refugee camps.