The U.N. refugee agency is launching a three-year program to return home 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout West Africa during 14 years of civil war. The UNHCR says this is one of the agency's largest voluntary repatriation efforts in the region.
During Liberia's civil war, tens of thousands of refugees fled to neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Others sought asylum in Nigeria and Ghana. The peace in Liberia is still shaky. But U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond says four of Liberia's 15 counties are safe enough for the refugees to return.
"This is a real milestone and a recovery of a country that not so long ago seemed hopelessly mired in conflict, corruption and misery," Mr. Redmond said. "So, obviously, this is a sign of new hope for Liberia."
On this first day of the repatriation operation, the U.N. Refugee Agency says it is flying 97 Liberians home from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, and transporting another 77 refugees to their country from a camp in eastern Sierra Leone.
Mr. Redmond says the momentum for the repatriation is expected to pick up, once more parts of Liberia are declared safe. He says that should happen by the end of the month, following the completion of the disarmament process.
When the operation gets fully under way, Mr. Redmond says, people will be brought home from the major asylum countries by land, sea and air. He says the UNHCR is planning for the return home of 100,000 people by the end of this year, either through the agency's program or on their own. The program is to continue for three years.
But Mr. Redmond says the operation could fail, if it does not receive continuing international support.
"There has been so much attention to other operations, specifically Darfur, in Africa, that many other African operations are being overshadowed, and funding is not up to the level that we would like it to be, and that includes Liberia, which is absolutely crucial," Mr. Redmond said. "I mean, after all these years of conflict, there really is hope on the horizon for Liberia and several other African operations, as well."
Earlier this year, the U.N. refugee agency appealed for $39 million. It has received less than half of that from donor countries.
Mr. Redmond says upon their return, the refugees will receive the first installment of four months of food rations and other supplies, such as buckets, shelters and agricultural tool kits to help them restart their lives.
Liberia suffered enormous destruction during its long civil war. Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR is working with communities to rehabilitate basic services in areas where refugees are returning. It is repairing school buildings, roads, housing, water and sanitation systems.