West Africa: Deputy High Commissioner in Sierra Leone
Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Mary Ann Wyrsch is in Freetown, Sierra Leone, today as part of an 11-day tour which has already taken her to Guinea and Sierra Leone's rural areas. She heads for Liberia on Wednesday and Côte d'Ivoire on Thursday.
On a two-day visit to UNHCR operations in inland areas of Sierra Leone, Ms. Wyrsch said she was impressed with the progress made despite a lack of resources. She visited Jimmy Bagbo and Largo refugee camps for Liberian refugees. She also spent some time in the town of Kenema and Nyandehu village to view the successful reintegration activities for returned Sierra Leoneans.
She is scheduled to meet with President Ahmed Kabbah today.
During the last months of 2002, UNHCR was forced to halt the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans because of funding problems. The repatriation resumed late last year.
Sierra Leone suffered severely during 11 years of war and refugee return and reintegration is still difficult in some areas. This is particularly true in Kailahun and Kono, two eastern districts that suffered enormous destruction. UNHCR is assisting a majority of some 200,000 returned Sierra Leoneans who had been refugees in Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and other West African countries,
There are still more than 100,000 Sierra Leonean refugees scattered around the region. UNHCR is planning to assist as many of them as possible in returning this year. At the same time, however, the ongoing conflict in Liberia continues driving thousands of refugees in need of assistance into Sierra Leone and Guinea.
From Thursday to Sunday, Ms.Wyrsch visited Guinea, where she met with senior government officials, UNHCR's local counterparts, the UN and NGO community, as well as refugee and community leaders. She expressed deep appreciation to the Guinean government for having hosted refugees for many years. The recent crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has once again put an additional strain on Guinea's already fragile economy, but the borders have nevertheless remained open for civilians in need.
Guinea is presently hosting over 190,000 refugees, mainly Liberians (116,000) and Sierra Leoneans (73,000).
Meanwhile, UNHCR continues with the emergency return of Liberian refugees from Tabou, in south-western Côte d'Ivoire, to Liberia's Maryland county. Between Friday, when the operation got off to a bumpy start, and Monday this week, close to 300 Liberians were able to cross the Cavaly river back home. Another group of 150 was scheduled to leave today. UNHCR will continue running daily convoys from Tabou to the river and across the river by boat. It is also trying to increase the pace of returns as the number of candidates for return has now reached 3,000. Please check our web site for two detailed stories on the returns from Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire.