The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday it had completed a three-year repatriation operation which helped 178,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to go home after the country's civil war.
The last two batches of refugees left neighbouring Guinea and Liberia for Sierra Leone on Wednesday by road.
“Yesterday, we received the last convoy from Liberia of 286 individuals”, Idrissa Conteh, the UNHCR spokesman in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, told IRIN by telephone.
“Three hundred and twenty nine Sierra Leoneans in the last convoy from Guinea left Kissidougou yesterday around 12 p.m. and arrived in Kambia (on the Sierra Leone border) this morning”, he added.
The UNHCR's repatriation programme started in January 2001, a year before Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war was officially declared over.
The programme was meant to end on June 30, but was extended to late July in order to accommodate thousands of refugees who applied for assistance to return home at the last minute, Jennifer Pagonis, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva told IRIN.
An estimated 120,000 people fled to Liberia and a further 370,000 crossed into Guinea during the Sierra Leone civil war, the refugee agency said in a statement.
UNHCR said it had assisted 178,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to go home. A further 92,000 had returned on their own and close to 15,000 had opted to stay and integrate into their host countries.
Aid workers said the satisfactory completion of the repatriation programme had been greeted with relief by all concerned.
“Returnees, upon arrival in their village of origin, usually feel relieved after spending so many years in camps”, Fabrizio Gabresi, Logistics Coordinator for the German Technical Cooperation agency (GTZ), which provided the trucks to carry refugees returning home from Guinea and Liberia.
“We are also relieved that this very challenging operation, across almost impassible roads, by air and by sea, came to an end with no major problems”, Gabresi added.
Upon arrival, the Sierra Leonean returnees receive a transport allowance to get them to their final destination, four months of food rations and non-food items such as kitchen sets, blankets, soap, tarpaulins.
Many have also benefited from the infrastructure, vocational training, income generating projects provided by relief agencies in the major return areas.
The end of the repatriation exercise does not mean the end of UNHCR activities in Sierra Leone.
The organisation's offices will remain open to assist the return of some 55,000 Liberian refugees who are expected to go home when a voluntary repatriation programme starts in October this year.
“The expertise acquired in this operation will definitely prove useful in Liberia where we will, from October, start repatriating more than 50,000 Liberians from the south of Sierra Leone to Liberia,” Gabresi said.
UNHCR said the completion of refugee repatriation to Sierra Leone, a country which experienced dreadful atrocities, sent a positive signal to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, which are still trying to come to terms with internal unrest.
“Stability in Sierra Leone definitely is sending a positive sign for the whole of West Africa ,” Pagonis, the organisation's spokeswoman in Geneva, said.