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Returns to Sierra Leone step up before June 30 deadline


Returns to Sierra Leone step up before June 30 deadline

More than 1,500 Sierra Leonean refugees have returned home from Liberia in recent days, ahead of UNHCR's plan to phase out assistance at the end of this month.
1 June 2004
Sierra Leonean refugees at Liberia's VOA camp boarding UNHCR-organised convoys home.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, June 1 (UNHCR) - More than 1,500 Sierra Leonean refugees have come home from neighbouring Liberia in recent days as the pace of repatriation steps up ahead of a June 30 deadline.

Last Friday, 718 refugees arrived at Zimmi way station, southern Sierra Leone, in the biggest return convoy so far this year. Another 614 came back earlier last week while a convoy of 337 was expected to arrive today.

This comes as UNHCR phases out its repatriation programme for Sierra Leonean refugees who had fled during a decade of civil war that ended in late 2001. During his visit to West Africa in late April/early May, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers announced that assistance to these refugees in the region would be cut off by June 30.

This year alone, UNHCR has helped over 3,700 refugees return to Sierra Leone. The agency has repatriated over 120,000 Sierra Leonean refugees since 2001, mostly from Liberia and Guinea.

Returnees who arrive at Zimmi way station receive jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats and soap. They are also vaccinated against Yellow Fever as the vaccine is not available in Liberia. The vaccine requires a seven-day quarantine, which means that all of the returnees must wait at the way station for a week before proceeding to their areas of origin.

During their week-long stay, they receive three daily meals of pea soup and bulgur provided by the UN World Food Programme. After seven days, each person above the age of 18 receives a plastic sheet, kitchen set, kerosene lantern, 25 kg of bulgur, 6.25 kg of lentils, 1.83 kg of vegetable oil and a bag to carry all of his or her new possessions.

Those refugees who choose to remain in Liberia can do so under a West African agreement called ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States. UNHCR estimates that there are some 8,000 Sierra Leonean refugees still in Liberia, as well as 2,000 in Guinea.