The United Nations has said it will begin the repatriation of the 13,000 remaining Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia on Tuesday when a convoy of trucks carries first group to the frontier.
The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) said in a statement that the UN refugee agency UNHCR would phase out all assistance to Sierra Leonean refugees in the country by June.
The decision to resume repatriation by road for the first time in two years follows the recent deployment of UN peacekeeping troops along the highway from the capital Monrovia to the border at Bo Waterside.
Last year, UNHCR used a ship to carry returning refugees back to the Sierra Leone capital Freetown because fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) blocked the overland route.
“We are confident in the peace obtaining inside Sierra Leone and we feel that every Sierra Leonean citizen should be availed the opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of the country,” Moses Okello, UNHCR representative in Liberia, said in the statement.
The first batch of 67 refugees will be taken from camps in and around Monrovia, where all the 13,000 have been staying, some for ten years or more.
During their stay in Liberia, UNHCR has supplied them with food, safe drinking water and education.
“The refugees have been provided with everything you can think of to make their lives comfortable,” Sarah Fyneah Brownell of the UNHCR Public Information Unit told IRIN on Monday.
Those returning to Sierra Leone will be met by UNHCR representatives who will provide them with food packages and shelter to help them rebuild their lives there.
“They will be provided with general things to help them reintegrate,” Brownell said.
Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans fled their homes for the relative safety of camps in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia when civil war broke out in 1991, but most have gone home since the conflict ended three years ago.
Those who ended up in Liberia found themselves trapped by the country’s own civil war, which only ended in August last year. UNHCR suspended the overland transportation of refugees to Sierra Leone in April last year as rebel forces cut the road to the frontier.
While UNHCR is encouraging Sierra Leonean refugees to leave Liberia, thousands of Liberian refugees are flooding back spontaneously from Sierra Leone without waiting for the refugee agency to organise their repatriation..
The UNHCR has said it will not organise an official repatriation programme for them until it is sure that UN peacekeepers have made all parts of Liberia safe for their return.
UNMIL has said the peacekeeping force should reach its full strength of 15,000 men by the end of March, but the full deployment of all these troops throughout Liberia may take longer.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions