Sierra Leoneans hurry home for elections
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, April 26 (UNHCR) - Less than three weeks before the presidential elections in Sierra Leone, the country's refugees are voting with their feet to return home. Over the last week, UNHCR has increased the number of its weekly overland return convoys from Guinea and Liberia to six as some 2,300 Sierra Leoneans are repatriated weekly ahead of the May 14 elections.
More than 13,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in camps in the Kissidougou area of south-eastern Guinea have registered to return, although some do not wish to return right away. The UN refugee agency will run convoys until May 6, but plans to put all organised return movements on hold during the election period. Convoys are expected to resume after the elections.
Relative peace has returned to Sierra Leone after 11 years of civil war sent more than 165,000 people fleeing into West Africa. Guinea and Liberia host some 150,000 Sierra Leonean refugees. Since December 2001, more than 60,000 of them have been assisted to return to their country.
In late March, UNHCR began using land routes for repatriation from Guinea. Earlier return movements had been by boat from the Guinean capital of Conakry to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Spontaneous returns on foot were also recorded.
For the upcoming polls, returnees from Guinea who wish to register as voters are required to show their UNHCR identity card to prove their nationality and age. Voters must be over 18. Returnees also need to show their Voluntary Repatriation Forms as proof that they are recent returnees who qualify for late voter registration. Those returning from Liberia are required to show their boarding passes and in some cases, their luggage.
UNHCR in Sierra Leone made arrangements with the National Electoral Commission to extend voter registration to April 24 to allow returnees to register. As returnees continue to arrive under the stepped-up return operation, there is discussion about further extension of this deadline to allow those coming back to exercise their voting rights.
Sierra Leonean authorities have also given a May 9 deadline for returnees wishing to transfer registration from one voting station to another. This deadline applies to returnees who had earlier registered to vote in their area of displacement but now wish to cast their votes in their areas of origin.
More than 30,000 Sierra Leoneans who returned home in 2000 but were unable to access their home areas are currently being accommodated in temporary settlement sites in Jemba, Taiama and Gerihun, as well as in host communities in Lokomassama and Barri Chiefdoms. UNHCR has facilitated the transfer of some of the returnees to their areas of origin and expects to continue movements after the elections.
Many returnees have expressed the desire to return to their home villages despite continuing fragile conditions in some of the areas. Some 139 of the 150 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone have been declared safe for return, but several of them still require large-scale assistance to make reintegration sustainable.