Liberia repatriation begins
UNHCR is set to start its massive, three-year voluntary repatriation programme today to return home some 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout West Africa during 14 years of civil war. This is a real milestone in the recovery of a country that not so long ago seemed hopelessly mired in conflict, corruption and misery. This is obviously a reflection of new hope for Liberians.
The first airlift of 97 refugees, in conjunction with IOM [the International Organization for Migration], is scheduled to leave the Ghanaian capital of Accra early this afternoon local time for the two-hour flight to the Liberian capital of Monrovia. The refugees, from Buduburam Refugee Settlement, will be accompanied on the flight by medical and operational staff of IOM and UNHCR. An initial convoy of 77 Liberian refugees from Gondama and Tobanda camp in eastern Sierra Leone, will cross over into western Liberia today at Bo Waterside. A small welcoming committee of local authorities and UNHCR field staff will greet the first land convoy of the repatriation.
Momentum for the repatriation is expected to pick up once more counties are declared safe after the scheduled completion of disarmament at the end of this month. Once fully underway, the repatriation will use land, sea and air routes from the major asylum countries of Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria to bring the refugees back home. Agreements setting out the main legal and operational requirements for the return were signed by the Liberian government and UNHCR last month with the governments of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. Four out of Liberia's 15 counties have so far been declared safe to return by the Liberian government.
Already this year, 50,000 refugees have gone back to Liberia on their own accord, often using risky methods of transport. UNHCR's facilitated repatriation will provide safe transport and a dignified return.
Once in the country, returning refugees will first stop over at reception centres for a couple of days where they will receive the first instalment of four months of food rations, non-food items such as jerry cans, buckets, soap, shelter and agricultural tool kits, and HIV/AIDS information. Much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed during the war, so UNHCR has been working with communities in return areas to rehabilitate and construct schools, water and sanitation systems, shelter, bridges and roads.
UNHCR planning figures for repatriation, including spontaneous returns, are as follows: In 2004 - 100,000 returns; 2005 - 154,000 returns; 2006 - 65,000 returns.
Liberian refugees in asylum countries as of December 2003: Guinea - 149,000, Côte d'Ivoire - 74,200, Sierra Leone - 67,200, Ghana - 42,400, Nigeria - 6,000, Gambia - 750, Others (including Senegal and Mali) - 1,150. There are an estimated 500,000 internally displaced people in Liberia.
UNHCR has appealed for $39 million for its Liberia operations and has so far received less than half that.