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Rescued Liberians flown home from Abidjan

Rescued Liberians flown home from Abidjan

In a special humanitarian operation, the UN refugee agency has started a two-day airlift to fly 330 Liberian refugees home after their homebound boat was found stranded off the southern Ivorian coast.
26 May 2004
Liberian refugees from the Dona Elvira boat arriving safely at Monrovia's Robert International Airport.

MONROVIA, Liberia, May 26 (UNHCR) - The first group of Liberian refugees rescued from a boat off the Ivorian coast has arrived back home on a chartered flight from Abidjan, ending an odyssey that has lasted more than three weeks.

On Wednesday morning, 85 people landed at Robert International Airport in the Liberian capital of Monrovia on a DC-9 plane chartered by the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. They were welcomed by representatives of UNHCR and the Liberian Refugees Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), and other aid workers.

"They are so happy. It was so emotional on the plane when they landed. There was singing, some sung the Liberian national anthem, some were thanking God," said UNHCR public information officer Fatoumata Kaba, who accompanied the returnees on their flight home.

One woman at the airport was crying and searching for her son, whom she had not seen for three years. Many of the returnees said they were glad to be back and wanted to rebuild their lives. One schoolgirl who had been in Nigeria said she wanted to get back to school in the 11th grade. Others were graduates from universities in Ghana, some had computers, while one woman said she wanted to start up her own business.

The returnees went through registration, immigration and medical checks, after which they were transported to their home areas around Monrovia.

Another flight carrying some 90 Liberian refugees was scheduled to leave the southern Ivorian city of Abidjan for Monrovia on Wednesday afternoon, followed by another two flights on Thursday. In the meantime, the refugees are receiving assistance - shelter, food and relief items - at a transit centre in Abidjan. One woman who has just given birth is awaiting the doctor's advice on whether or not she can fly home.

In all, 330 Liberian refugees will be flown back this week in a special humanitarian operation. They had started their homeward journey from Nigeria and Ghana in early May on a hired boat, the Dona Elvira. Along the way, the boat broke down in the Gulf of Guinea, off the southern coast of Côte d'Ivoire. It drifted for days in the stormy sea before it was found and towed into Abidjan.

"This was not a UNHCR operation," said UNHCR Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello. "It was unfortunate that people were put in danger like this. We are grateful that their lives have been spared."

He stressed, "All we can do is appeal to Liberians who are out there as refugees to wait for the organised repatriation which will start in October. If they do take the kind of risk they are taking, I think they are putting their lives in danger and it is not worth it."

UNHCR is not promoting repatriation to Liberia at the moment as parts of the country are still not secure despite the end of a 14-year civil war. The agency has conducted mass information campaigns in the region to warn Liberian refugees of the dangers of rushing home on their own, urging them to wait until conditions are conducive for a safe and dignified return.

Asked if they were aware of UNHCR's preparations for repatriation in October, many of Wednesday's returnees said they would have waited if they had known, but added that exile was difficult and they were eager to come home.

"I appeal to Liberians not to take the risk that we have taken, because we saw death eye to eye [on the Dona Elvira] and it's not worth it. Liberians should not get on any defective ship because it's not worth it," said Alfred White, 29, who had returned from a camp in Ghana.

UNHCR is currently boosting its presence in the field in Liberia to lay the groundwork for organised returns starting in October, provided the peace process continues without major incidents. It hopes to assist in the repatriation and reintegration of 150,000 Liberian refugees this year.