UNHCR resumes sea repatriation from Monrovia; urges refugees to go home
MONROVIA, Liberia, August 18 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has resumed the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees and re-established contact with three refugee camps amid the still-tense situation in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Although the West African ECOMIL troops have set up checkpoints around central Monrovia, the situation remains insecure with reports of armed militia and rebel forces harassing the local population for food and relief supplies.
For the first time in weeks, UNHCR has been able to visit three refugee camps within a 10-km range of central Monrovia that had been cut off by the recent upsurge in fighting.
VOA camp, which hosted more than 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees before being trampled by advancing rebels, is now almost empty. Thousands have fled into the surrounding bushes, villages, or even to central Monrovia.
Only about 20 percent of Banjor camp's refugees remain, desperate for food and relief supplies. Security is still a major problem for them as rebel troops and government militia are still lurking in the area.
In Samukai camp, only about 50 refugees are left from an original population of 4,000. Those who remain reported that during the last three attacks, the camp had been looted, people taken away and families separated. Even now, government militia are still conducting irregular raids, with two girls being abducted on Sunday.
These camps currently lie outside the ECOMIL boundaries and can only be accessed with special authorisation. UNHCR is negotiating to extend this security zone to cover the camps so that refugees and internally displaced people can return to their homes or camps.
However, in view of the continuing insecurity, UNHCR has taken a more active role in encouraging Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia to return home. On Sunday, the agency resumed the emergency repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees on the MV Overbeck. More than 200 refugees who had registered for return were picked up by UNHCR trucks from the agency's office and Samukai camp's vicinity and were escorted to the Monrovia port by ECOMIL troops. They are expected to arrive back in Freetown on Tuesday.
As the ship plies the route between Freetown and Monrovia, UNHCR plans to organise repatriation voyages once every five days. Refugees seem more determined to go home now, after suffering harassment and severe deprivations over the last few months.
Meanwhile, between 500 and 700 refugees and displaced people are still camped at UNHCR's office in Monrovia's Mamba Point. The agency is trying to find the best options for them and to relocate them as smoothly and as soon as possible.
The UNHCR-chartered MV Overbeck, which is scheduled back in Monrovia later this week, will bring relief supplies for another 7,000 people, in addition to a similar shipment it offloaded last Saturday.
At the same time, the UN is discussing the possibility of opening up humanitarian corridors between Liberia, and neighbouring Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire, to facilitate the repatriation of refugees and the delivery of aid supplies.