Refugees reluctant to return home

Thousands of Liberian refugees sheltering in camps in eastern Sierra Leone are reluctant to be repatriated, saying they would rather stay where they are or resettle in another country.

Some of the refugees in two of the eight camps in Sierra Leone’s eastern border province of Kenema said they felt conditions back in Liberia were not yet favorable for their return, despite assurances by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Liberian government that life had improved.

“The majority of the refugees here are not happy about getting back home. Their homes were destroyed and where would they reside if they are repatriated?” said Fallah Sollie, the head of 2,000 Liberians living in Jembe camp. “We have made it clear to the UNHCR, the Liberian and Sierra Leone governments that we cannot get back home where there is a shortage of shelter, hospitals and road networks to allow us to freely move around.”

UNHCR began a repatriation effort in November 2004 to get some 300,000 Liberian refugees spread across the West African region to return home. About 100,000 Liberians have returned independently and UNHCR has repatriated almost 90,000 refugees living in different countries.

More than 40,000 Liberians fled to neighbouring Sierra Leone after Liberia's civil war erupted in December 1989. Since peace was restored nearly four years ago, only 18,000 of the refugees in Sierra Leone have returned home, according to UNHCR.

It said it hopes to repatriate 15,000 more Liberians from Sierra Leone before it stops its regional Liberian repatriation programme in June. About 280 refugees returned overland to the Liberian town of Foya last weekend through UNHCR.

The agency says most of the refugees in Sierra Leone are from north and northwestern Liberia - areas that were severely damaged during the 14-year war. Residents there, however, are slowly rebuilding their lives and their homes, using mud bricks and clay, and palm thatch for roofing.

“Some of us have not been working here in Sierra Leone. We have only been relying on relief food and items given to us in camps and there is no income for us to take back to rebuild our homes,” said Sia Kendor, a mother of four who has lived in the Jembe camp for more than five years.

Abid Mir, deputy head of UNHCR in Sierra Leone, told IRIN that fewer refugees are returning home than expected.

"We did an intention survey around end of last year. At that time… there were almost 6,000 people who had indicated that they may want to stay behind and look for local reintegration, but the repatriation from November up to now has not shown us those trends,” he said.

Mir said the Sierra Leonean government’s National Commission on Social Action (NaCSA) would spearhead local absorption of refugees after the June repatriation deadline passes. He said plans are underway to revamp basic infrastructures such as roads, clinics and water systems in villages and towns.

Moses Gboumai, the regional coordinator of NaCSA in eastern Sierra Leone, said that the process of local integration has already begun.

“The commission has begun formulating strategies where we would disperse those remaining refugees in villages and towns, and after June the plan is there would be no camps in Sierra Leone,” he said.

Those refugees who have taken advantage of UNHCR’s overland repatriation from Sierra Leone said that they would rather stay in Liberia and try to make a living rather than remaining in camps in another country.

“I miss Liberia a whole lot and it is wonderful to come home,” said Bendu Massaley, one of the refugees who returned to Liberia last weekend. “This is our country and we have to rebuild it again, but we can not do so in a foreign land.”

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