The U.N. refugee agency says its program to repatriate thousands of Liberian refugees after many years of exile is gathering momentum. The UNHCR says a first group of nearly 200 Liberian refugees is expected to return home Saturday from neighboring Guinea.
Guinea is the largest country of asylum for Liberian refugees in West Africa. At the beginning of the year, the U.N. Refugee Agency says Guinea was sheltering nearly 150,000 Liberians who fled during the country's 14-year civil war.
Spokesman, Ron Redmond says since the end of the war, tens of thousands of refugees have chosen to return home to Liberia on their own. Unlike them, he says the 193 Liberian refugees returning home from Guinea Saturday are being assisted by the U.N. Refugee Agency.
"The returnees will be welcomed at the Liberian border town of Guecke by local authorities and UNHCR before continuing to a nearby transit center," said Ron Redmond. "There, they will get food, medical screening, a package of food for two months from WFP [World Food Program] and non-food items to help them start their new lives."
The U.N. Refugee Agency considers these returns a vote of confidence in Liberia's fledgling peace process. Since the repatriation program began on October 1, the agency has helped more than 500 refugees to return home from Sierra Leone and Ghana. The U.N. Refugee Agency says it expects the pace of returns to pick up in the months ahead of the elections scheduled in October 2005.
The repatriation program is to last three years. Mr. Redmond says an estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered around West Africa are expected to go home by the end of 2007. He notes this is one of the agency's largest voluntary repatriation efforts in the region.
On another encouraging note, the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration, or IOM, will start a program on Monday to help some 100,000 internally displaced people return to their villages of origin. They will go back to six of the 15 counties declared safe by Liberia's National Transitional Government.
IOM Spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy says the United Nations recently began a campaign to inform internally displaced people about the voluntary return program.
"These are early days, but for the moment the impression we are getting from those camps in the periphery of Monrovia is that there is an eagerness from the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to return to areas which have been declared safe," he said. "Now, the challenge today is probably to make sure that these returns are sustainable. Obviously, security is an issue. But, the challenge is to make sure that these returns are sustainable and that the returnees get enough assistance to help them through the first few months of their return."
Mr. Chauzy says the IDPs will be given a two-month supply of food, seeds for planting and necessary equipment, such as tarpaulins, to provide shelter, blankets, sleeping mats and cooking sets.