The United Nations refugee agency reports that in the past 10 days it has helped more than 900 Sierra Leonean refugees return from Liberia to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. With roads blocked by fighting between government and rebel forces, UNHCR officials are now using a boat to get refugees out of Liberia.
The boat that the agency is using shuttles between Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and Freetown twice a week. But it can only carry about 300 people, and thousands of Sierra Leoneans want to leave Liberia because of the fighting between the government and the rebels.
There are an estimated 25,000 Sierra Leoneans in camps in Liberia. U.N. refugee spokeswoman Delphine Marie says she expects most of them will want to return home to get away from the fighting. She says, so far, about 4,500 refugees have registered in Monrovia for repatriation by ship and she expects the number to rise.
"This seemingly low figure could be explained by the fact that for many days or even weeks, we were prevented from going to some of the camps to do a proper registration," said Ms. Marie. "As we were going along, more and more people were coming forward and we expect the registration to continue, taking in more and more people as it goes on."
The sea operation began on July 20 after the land route from northern Liberia to Sierra Leone was cut by fighting.
Ms. Marie calls the sealift an emergency solution. She says the UNHCR would like to resume the overland program as soon as possible because more people can be transported by truck than by ship. "At the rate of 600 per week, it will take months to repatriate the remaining 25,000," she noted. "So, it is only a temporary, we hope, a temporary solution that quickly could be complemented or replaced by either an additional ship to increase the caseload or the capacity or overland convoys as soon as the situation allows."
Sierra Leoneans are not the only ones fleeing. Refugee agency officials say since the fighting erupted earlier this year, more than 80,000 Liberians have fled to neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.