First refugees sign up for return to Liberia
KENEMA, Sierra Leone, Sept 23 (UNHCR) - More than 100 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone's Gondama camp have booked themselves seats on the first return convoy set to cross back into Liberia on October 1.
Julius C. Massaley was one of the first to sign up for repatriation when registration started on Tuesday. The Liberian refugee has lived for two years in Gondama camp, located in a diamond-rich area in eastern Sierra Leone.
"Now that I have decided to go home, I will pack two days before departure," he said at the registration centre. He could not stop smiling as he answered routine questions on his name, age, occupation and where he intends to return in Liberia - information that will help UNHCR plan for reintegration assistance upon his return. He told the refugee agency that he plans to resume his teaching job back in Bambala town in western Liberia's Grand Cape Mount county.
The inaugural convoy is set to leave Gondama camp on September 29 in order to be able to cross into Liberia on October 1, the launch date for UNHCR's facilitated Liberian repatriation programme. The distance back to western Liberia's Bo Waterside town is more than 200 km, but the journey will take three days due to poor road conditions along the way.
Last week, the Liberian government declared four out of 15 counties safe for return. The counties are: Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, Gbarpolu and Margibi.
"We wanted to wait for areas of return to be declared safe before we start registering refugees for departure," explained UNHCR repatriation officer Sakura Atsumi. "On the first day, 126 refugees came forward to be booked on the first convoy. We will continue the registration process in the coming days and weeks to give a chance to those who want to be transported by us to safe areas this year."
Gondama camp hosts 8,300 of the more than 67,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone. Many of the men in this camp try their luck in the diamond fields while the women busy themselves in their vegetable gardens or selling their produce in the market to feed their families.
The ongoing registration concerns about half the population in this camp; the other half originate from Lofa county, where conditions are not yet conducive to return.
At this point, UNHCR is only facilitating returns to safe areas in Liberia. It expects some 100,000 Liberian refugees to return from the region this year, either facilitated by UNHCR or on their own.
As of the beginning of this year, there were an estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees living in neighbouring countries like Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and beyond. The UN refugee agency has devised a regional multi-year programme to help them home between 2004 and 2007.