UNHCR reopens offices in Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia, April 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is resuming full operations in Liberia, sending staff to previously-inaccessible areas on the heels of UN peacekeeping troops to pave the way for organised repatriation later this year.
On Monday, UNHCR expanded its presence beyond the capital, Monrovia, sending 46 staff members to reopen offices in Saclepea and Zwedru in the east, Harper in the south-east, Voinjama in the north, Gbarnga in central Liberia, and Bopolu north of Monrovia. Due to still-volatile conditions, staff from the Harper and Bopolu offices will initially be based in Zwedru and Tubmanburg respectively.
"Our presence in the field will enable us to collect information, establish network with the authorities, NGOs and the community, as well as accelerate reintegration and rehabilitation projects," said UNHCR Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello.
Monday's deployment comes a year after the refugee agency pulled out staff from eastern and south-eastern Monrovia amid rising rebel violence against refugee settlements and aid workers.
The overall security situation has improved following the departure of former President Charles Taylor last August and the subsequent deployment of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). However, security constraints have not been lifted fully, so that the newly-deployed UNHCR staff will have to be escorted by UNMIL troops.
UNHCR's immediate task in the field will be to register the populations that need assistance, distinguishing returning refugees from internally displaced Liberians and refugees from neighbouring countries like Côte d'Ivoire. After assessing their needs, the agency can then work with local authorities to identify and prioritise rehabilitation projects in sectors like shelter, water, sanitation, health and education.
Sub-agreements with implementing partners have already been signed in most regions, enabling UNHCR to start operating immediately.
Prior to the deployment, UNHCR had conducted weekly missions to these areas to lay the groundwork for resuming operations. The newly deployed staff will be tasked with completing the rehabilitation of UNHCR offices, many of which have been looted and destroyed during the civil war.
While it is not encouraging returns at this point, UNHCR is helping those who have come back on their own from the region. On Sunday, the agency completed the airlift of 239 Liberian refugees from Mali. This group had been living in exile in Ghana for years. On their way home through Burkina Faso and Mali, they had been stranded at the Malian border when they could not obtain permission to transit through Guinea. Their return was facilitated on humanitarian grounds after extensive discussions between UNHCR, UNMIL and the governments of Liberia and Mali.
When the first group from Mali touched down in Monrovia on Saturday, they were welcomed by the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, Gyude Bryant; the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative, Jacques Klein; and UNHCR's Okello.
This special operation underlined the UN belief that all refugees should be assisted home in safety and dignity, said Klein.
Okello added, "UNHCR is pleased to have assisted these people to come home. However, we urge all Liberian refugees to wait a little for a better organised voluntary repatriation that will avoid the kind of inconvenience these people have gone through."
Sunday's returnees were registered and given medical screening. Subsequently, most of them moved in with their relatives in Montserrado on the capital's outskirts, while a few are being hosted in Siegbeh way station in Monrovia.
UNHCR has assisted some 9,500 Liberian returnees since December. Because of insecurity in some of the areas of origin, nearly 6,000 of them have been unable to proceed to their homes and are being assisted at Perry Town and Siegbeh way stations for displaced persons in the Monrovia area.
Some of the spontaneous returnees who managed to reach Lofa county have started ploughing large acres of land before the forthcoming rainy season.
But according to UNHCR, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be a long process. The agency estimates that about half the houses in Voinjama, Zwedru and Harper have been destroyed. Public buildings like schools, hospitals and offices (including UNHCR's) have been looted and damaged. Repairs are now underway.
Pending further insecurity, the UN refugee agency plans to start the voluntary repatriation of more than 300,000 Liberian refugees in the region after the rainy season ends in October.