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UNHCR Launching Voluntary Repatriation Program for Sierra Leonean Refugees - 2001-12-12

The United Nations refugee agency said it is stepping up its efforts to help refugees in Guinea to return home to Sierra Leone.

About 100,000 refugees from Sierra Leone are in Guinea, driven there by years of fighting between rebels and government forces.

But the rebel groups have begun laying down their arms and Sierra Leone is now a much safer place, prompting many of the refugees to want to return home. Refugee officials are helping about 250 of them return home to Sierra Leone every week, but they said they want to double that figure.

UNHCR spokeswoman Millicent Mutuli said, starting this week, two groups of 250 people each will be repatriated by boat every week from Conakry, the Guinean capital, to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. From there, they will be taken to their home areas.

Ms. Mutuli said the refugees want to go home because they believe Sierra Leone is much safer now than in the past. "We know particularly in areas north of Freetown such as Lungi, these areas have stabilized sufficiently and we have seen, for example, that Sierra Leonean refugees who have temporarily settled around Freetown have been willing to go back to Lungi in Kambia. So, some of the areas have stabilized and people feel encouraged or confident to return," she said.

The UNHCR is only returning those refugees who say they want to go home. The voluntary repatriation operation began one year ago. So far, the agency has helped more than 30,000 to return. Ms. Mutuli said she expects many more will ask to go home as their country becomes more stable. "What has changed, I think, is that there has been a lot going on in many parts of Sierra Leone and for some of them, they do have encouraging reports of security in their areas of return. Obviously, many others want to participate in the upcoming election," she said.

Presidential elections will take place May 14. They will be followed by parliamentary elections at a date yet to be determined. The elections are viewed by many in Sierra Leone as a chance to bring stability to the country after years of war.