The U.N. refugee agency is recommending that countries end the refugee status for Sierra Leoneans who fled their country during the decade-long civil war of the 1990's. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The war in Sierra Leone started in 1991 and lasted for 10 years. During the height of the conflict, as many as two million of the country's six million citizens were displaced. Most remained in the country, but nearly 500,000 fled to Liberia and Guinea.
Spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, Jennifer Pagonis says the root causes of the Sierra Leone refugee problem no longer exist. So, there no longer is any reason for their status as refugees to continue.
"There have been fundamental and durable changes since peace was declared in January 2002," she noted. "The cessation will take effect at the end of this year on December 31, 2008 following consultations with the governments of the main countries of asylum and Sierra Leone."
The UNHCR ran a voluntary repatriation operation from September 2000 to July 2004. Pagonis says about 180,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have returned home under that program. She says countless others have gone back by their own means.
She says around 43,000 refugees from Sierra Leone continue to live in exile, mainly in The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria.
"And, those who want to return back to Sierra Leone from West Africa before the end of 2008 can benefit from UNHCR assistance," she added. "Those in need of international protection will be able to remain in their current host countries as refugees, while those who do not qualify for asylum after 2008, but do not want to return home because of a strong family ties or strong social-economic links with the host country will be expected to legalize their stay there."
The war in Sierra Leone was particularly appalling, because of the huge number of mutilations carried out by the rebels upon the civilian population. Individuals most responsible for the atrocities committed during the conflict have been indicted and tried, or are in the process of being tried, by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The UNHCR says significant improvements in the rule of law and respect for human rights now exist throughout the country. And, it adds two sets of elections in the past few years have been declared free and fair by the international community.