The United Nations has begun the first voluntary repatriation of Ivory Coast refugees from neighboring Liberia. Hundreds of thousands of Ivorians had crossed the border to flee their country's violent post-election crisis. The refugees are starting to stream home now that security conditions are improving in western Ivory Coast.
The numbers are small, but their direction is encouraging. Forty-five families are the first to voluntarily leave Liberia and return to Ivory Coast through the U.N. refugee agency.
They are at a transit center in the Ivorian town of Toulepleu after leaving Liberia's Solo refugee camp. It is one of six camps established over the last eight months to house refugees from the political crisis between Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo.
The U.N. refugee agency's Sulaiman Momolu said the voluntary repatriation follows an agreement between the United Nations and the governments of Liberia and Ivory Coast.
“UNHCR is not promoting returns. That is we are not going out to the camps and say, 'Oh, it's time to go back home.' We are far from that yet. What we are doing is to facilitate in line with that tripartite agreement that was signed," said Momolu. "You want to go, you register with our colleagues in the field. You write down your name. You go through the processes, and then you go.”
Momolu said camp officials check with their colleagues in Ivory Coast to make sure that it is safe in the areas where these refugees are returning.
“The main areas of return are Blolekin, Toulepleu, Duekoue, and Guiglo. So as long as we have people who are returning, who are expressing their desire to return, we will cross-check those areas where they want to return,” said Momolu.
While these are the first official refugee returns through the U.N., Ivorian refugees have been returning on their own since April when fighters backing President Ouattara captured Gbagbo, who had refused to give up power after losing last year's election.
Refugee camps farther north along the border are winding down as mostly pro-Ouattara civilians return home. The problem is farther south, where most of the refugees are Gbagbo supporters, many of whom say they are afraid to return because the Ouattara fighters who chased them from their homes are now part of the new national army.
Momolu said some of the refugees are returning for the start of the school year, others in preparation for next month's legislative vote.
“Some are saying, 'Well, we have to go because we can't get jobs here. We were working before and we want to go back and get our jobs.' Others say, 'Well, parliamentary elections are coming up. Our people out there who want to contest are encouraging us to go back and vote,'” said Momolu.
Relief workers in Ivory Coast say one of the biggest challenges facing returning refugees is a shortage of housing.