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Liberia: UNHCR very concerned about safety of Sierra Leonean refugees

Briefing notes

Liberia: UNHCR very concerned about safety of Sierra Leonean refugees

28 May 2002

UNHCR is very concerned about the safety of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The refugees, like many Liberians, are caught up in an unpredictable situation with some camps situated near conflict zones and refugees getting increasingly nervous.

Our two refugee camps in Sinje, near the border with Sierra Leone, have been cut off to all humanitarian aid for more than two weeks now. We can only maintain radio contact to the refugees thanks to a generator now running short of fuel.

A meeting with refugee leaders from Sinje that was scheduled for yesterday in Monrovia was postponed for security reasons. Although commercial traffic between Sinje and Monrovia resumed on Monday, refugee representatives were reluctant to travel due to rumours that rebels are hiding in a plantation adjacent to the road. The meeting will hopefully take place today.

Over the weekend there were reports of fierce fighting in the towns of Gbah and Madina, in Grand Cape Mount County, and also in Tubmanburg, Kle and Bomi counties. It was initially reported that dissidents had captured some areas, but on Sunday the situation was apparently reversed. Calm had returned by Monday, but the situation remains unpredictable.

At the height of last week's fighting, refugee leaders in Sinje were advised by UNHCR to decide themselves regarding possibly moving towards Sierra Leone, should the fighting close in on the camp.

The camps in Sinje also receive frequent visits from pro-government groups allegedly looking for dissidents, which makes the refugees very uncomfortable. The camps are reportedly crowded due to the presence of some 8,000 displaced Liberians together with the 11,000 refugees.

Although other refugee camps closer to Monrovia are accessible, the delivery of aid has been considerably slowed by the presence of large groups of internally displaced Liberians in these camps. In Zuannah, north-west of Monrovia, there are 5,000 displaced Liberians mixed with the 3,000 refugees.

Roadblocks and heavily armed patrols are visible in the vicinity of the capital, which adds to the tension among the 5,000 refugees at the camp of Samukai, situated on a strategic route leading to Gbarnga, which was the scene of heavy fighting two weeks ago.

Because the land route from Monrovia to Sierra Leone, via Sinje, is impracticable, UNHCR is making plans to resume repatriation by sea for Sierra Leonean refugees who wish to return home. We are looking at hiring a ship to carry refugees from Monrovia to Freetown. Yesterday, UNHCR staff started a new campaign to register candidates for return.

Liberia is host to 39,000 Sierra Leonean refugees registered in six UNHCR camps, plus an estimated 15,000 living outside camps. Some 18,000 have returned to Sierra Leone in 2002, including 11,000 through UNHCR repatriation convoys and 7,000 spontaneously.