UNHCR ends Liberian operation after helping more than 100,000 go home

A convoy of trucks carrying 798 refugees crossed the border from Sierra Leone at the weekend marking the end of the UN refugee agency's successful Liberian repatriation programme.

Weary but happy Liberians clamber off lorries that brought them back home at the end of UNHCR's Liberian reptriation programme.   © UNHCR/S.Brownell

MONROVIA, Liberia, 2 July (UNHCR) - A convoy of trucks carrying 798 refugees crossed the border from Sierra Leone at the weekend marking the end of the UN refugee agency's successful Liberian repatriation programme.

UNHCR, which has repatriated more than 105,000 returnees since October 2004, will still be involved in projects in Liberia aimed at easing the reintegration of returnees.

"The Liberian repatriation has been one of the largest UNHCR operations in Africa in recent years," said Mengesha Kebede, deputy director of UNHCR's Africa bureau. "With the end of the Sierra Leonean repatriation in 2004, the successful completion of the Liberia operation marks the end of large-scale repatriation programmes in the West Africa region."

The last convoy crossed into Liberia at the Bo Waterside border point under drizzling rain on Saturday. But the weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of the returnees, who quickly disembarked from the trucks when they reached the Sinji transit centre in Liberia's Grand Cape Mount county.

"I am tired of being a being a refugee, so I have come back home to join my husband," said Sinoe Ballah, who fled her country in 2003 and stayed on in Sierra Leone to give birth last month to twin girls.

While Ballah was on the last convoy, others returned earlier Saturday from other parts of Africa. Another UNHCR convoy from Sierra Leone took 474 Liberians back to their homes in Lofa county, while 267 refugees came home overland from Côte d'Ivoire. Flights from Nigeria and Ghana landed in Monrovia with 85 and 71 Liberian returnees respectively.

UNHCR's announcement that its repatriation programme would cease at the end of last month led to a surge of returns in June, when more than 5,000 people opted to go back with the refugee agency's assistance.

More than 350,000 Liberians fled the civil war raging in their country from 1989 to 2003. The conflict devastated the infrastructure and economy and left an estimated 200,000 people dead and more than 800,000 internally displaced.

To date, more than 150,000 refugees have returned to Liberia. In addition to over 100,000 returns assisted by UNHCR, half of which came from the neighbouring Guinea, some 50,000 registered Liberian refugees returned home on their own. They were encouraged by the restoration of peace and inauguration of the democratically elected president.

"Without being complacent, one can say that the repatriation operation to Liberia was a success," said Salif Kagni, the head of the UNHCR field office in Nzérékoré in neighbouring Guinea.

In Liberia, UNHCR has been also involved in the return of some 326,000 internally displaced persons to their areas of origin. This programme was successfully completed in April 2006. Internally displaced Liberians had been living in camps, mainly around the capital, Monrovia.

This success story was possible because of the unambiguous wish of the Liberian refugees to return, the commitment of the Liberian government to bring its people back home, the efforts of UNHCR and other partners and the support of all countries in the West African region.

The Liberian repatriation has been a demanding logistical operation involving returns by air, sea and road from all the neighbouring countries and further afield in the region. Upon arrival, refugees have been provided with a transportation grant, food and a number of household items.

Reintegration and improvement of livelihoods for returnees have been long-term key priorities for UNHCR and its partners, who have been repairing shelters, roads, water wells, schools and clinics as well as providing vocational training programme.

As the next step, UNHCR and those countries still hosting thousands of Liberian refugees are preparing to start long-term projects aimed at achieving their local integration. The purpose of these projects will be to bring the main displacement chapter in the West African region to a successful closure.

There are still some 80,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa. More than 23,000 remain in Ghana, 22,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, 13,000 in Sierra Leone, 14,000 in Guinea and 5,000 in Nigeria. The rest are scattered in other nearby countries.

By Sarah F. Brownell in Monrovia, Liberia