Rescued Liberians join growing tide of returnees
MONROVIA, Liberia, Jan 12 (UNHCR) - After days of drifting on high seas, more than 200 Liberian refugees have been rescued from their stalled boat and repatriated to Liberia, joining a growing number of spontaneous returnees from the region.
Over the weekend, a Dutch ship under the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) picked up 225 refugees who had been stranded for days off Liberia's Atlantic coast. Their self-chartered boat had developed technical problems near the south-eastern city of Harper after leaving Ghana, where most of them had been living in Buduburam camp.
"I never thought we were going to make it alive, but we are here today thanks to UNHCR and UNMIL," said returnee Ma Yatta Smith upon arriving in Monrovia on Saturday.
Recounting the ordeal, she said they had run out of food and water on the stalled boat. "We had to trade with fishermen to get fish and vegetables to eat," she said, adding that the rescue was timely because some passengers were starting to fall sick.
The rescue ship, which was deployed after the stranded crew made radio contact with the UN refugee agency, brought food, water and medicine for the refugees. In Monrovia, the returnees were received by UNHCR and transported back to their home areas around the capital. Two sick passengers were taken away in an ambulance.
"We are grateful for UNMIL support," said Theophilus Vodounou, UNHCR's Senior Operations Coordinator and Officer-in-Charge in Liberia. He noted that it would have been difficult to reach the spontaneous returnees in Harper as security constraints have so far prevented the refugee agency from resuming operations in the area.
Many of the rescued returnees said they had come back to Liberia because of the presence of UNMIL and the current peace initiative. Similar reasons were cited by some of the 441 refugees who recently returned on their own from Sierra Leone's Gerihun camp and are now hosted in Monrovia's Perry Town camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). They said 2,000 people left Gerihun camp in all, some of whom may have settled in other IDP camps near Monrovia.
Italian non-governmental organisation Intersos also reported that some Liberian families are returning from Guinea and Ghana every day, going back to areas like Ganta, Saclepea and Gbarnga where UNHCR has no access due to the still-fragile and unpredictable security situation.
As returnee numbers grow and UNMIL deployment expands in Liberia, UN agencies have called for the easing of security measures in areas of return where security has improved, so that UN aid workers can assist the returnees. The agencies are preparing to return as soon as a decision is taken on their recommendations.
UNHCR is standing by to start its reintegration programme for returnees once it can resume operations in areas of return. Under the programme, the agency and its partners will rehabilitate schools and clinics, rebuild roads, and provide water and sanitary facilities in these areas. Returnees will receive food aid, farming tools, blankets, mats, corrugated iron for roofs and brick-making machines to rebuild permanent homes.
The UN refugee agency expects spontaneous returns to increase through the course of this year and in the run-up to the elections scheduled for the second half of 2005. It plans to start facilitating returns from the region in September, after the rainy season - pending UNMIL deployment and improved security in areas of return.
UNHCR has appealed for $39 million for its operations in Liberia this year, including programmes to repatriate and reintegrate 150,000 returning IDPs and refugees. In the longer run, the agency hopes to help an estimated 320,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa to go home.