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UNHCR Resumes Repatriation of Sierra Leonean Refugees from Liberia

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has resumed the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia. The UNHCR put its operation on hold several months ago because of the dangerous situation in Liberia.

This week, the U.N. refugee agency flew 10 Sierra Leonean families back home from Liberia. This was the first organized return movement since a peace agreement was signed on August 18 between the Liberian government and two rebel groups.

UNHCR Spokesman Kris Janowski says some 14,000 Sierra Leonean refugees are still living in camps in Liberia. So far, he says, several hundred of them have registered to go home under the agency's voluntary repatriation program.

"We are not sure really whether everyone, whether all 14,000 are going to register," he said. "We have been trying to, on numerous occasions, to persuade them to register, and go back to Sierra Leone, which we see as a better option than remaining in Liberia, where there are many problems. Nonetheless, we only have several hundred more actually registered to go back. And, this is essentially people who had signed up earlier on, and then the whole thing had to be put on hold."

Until the operation was halted, the U.N. refugee agency had assisted close to 66,300 Sierra Leonean refugees to return home. Despite the recurring fighting this year, the agency was able to help more than 4,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to go home by sea and air.

But, Mr. Janowski says, the agency finally was forced to stop the returns in August because of the increasingly dangerous standoff between the Liberian government and rebels. Now, he says, the situation is much better, especially in the capital, Monrovia.

"There was a time when there was fighting and instability in Monrovia itself at the sort of low point of the situation there," said Kris Janowski. "And then, of course, everybody was just basically trying to get out, including Sierra Leoneans. The situation since then has improved considerably. In Monrovia, the situation is calm. So, there is absolutely no panic. So, these decisions now, whether to go or not to go are taken in a much more cool way."

On their return home, the Sierra Leonean refugees receive an assistance package of relief items, a transport allowance of about $9 and a four-month supply of food.

Mr. Janowski says the UNHCR is working with the World Food Program to organize twice-weekly flights for up to 40 Sierra Leonean refuges from Liberia every week.