The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said Friday that two convoys carrying 645 Ivorian refugees have begun their journeys home from two Liberian camps where they lived for the past few years. The agency said two more convoys are planned by the end of the year.
Some 300,000 people fled Ivory Coast during the violence that followed the November 2010 presidential election, including 200,000 who went to Liberia. The political crisis ended in April 2011, and in late 2012 the UNHCR began its voluntary repatriation program.
However, the program was suspended in July 2014 when land borders between Ivory Coast and its neighbors Liberia and Guinea were closed because of the Ebola epidemic that eventually killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa.
Now, with the epidemic over, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the refugees are eager to go home, and that many of the 38,000 Ivorian refugees still in Liberian camps wish to return immediately.
Edwards told VOA that on arrival, the returnees will spend a day in transit centers where they will get a hot meal and undergo a medical screening.
“They will be provided with information, including about Ebola and other aspects of their return," he said. "Then they will be given aid and they will be taken as far as possible to their home villages, where they will be given further integration help, further support in re-establishing livelihoods and the aid they will need to immediately get on with things.”
Edwards said the refugees will receive basic items such as kitchen utensils, mattresses and mosquito nets, and the World Food Program will provide each refugee with food rations for three months.
The agency has helped some 40,000 refugees return home; another 160,000 Ivorians have returned on their own.
For many, returning to Ivory Coast means starting from scratch.
Now back home in Abidjan, former refugee Nadège Blé doesn't regret returning after spending a year in a half in a refugee camp in Togo. But she said the government hasn't made good on its promises of assistance and jobs for returning refugees.
"I came home but I didn’t get any of this help," she said. "I had to fight to have school fees taken care of for my children, and I only got it last year."
With the help of the UNHCR, Blé submitted a micro-finance proposal to restart her photography business this year. She is waiting for approval.
Nora Sturm, a communication officer at the UNHCR, said Blé’s case is not unique.
“These refugees have left their country for years, and when they come back, often they have lost their home, their jobs, their lands,” she said.
Sturm said the UNHCR is trying to help them reintegrate, but with about 240,000 returnees in the past four years, the need is great.
“When they return to Cote d'Ivoire they are hoping that their lives will be as good as it were as they left, or even better," she said. "We do provide them with startup finance assistance to get their life back on track, but our resources are quite limited.”
It wasn’t an easy transition for Moussa Diomande, either. The 40-year-old sales representative remembers the day his convoy of returnees from Togo reached Abidjan.
“I asked myself, is it really Abidjan?” he said. “At the camp, all they would tell is that everything had been destroyed. I was wondering why I had stayed away for so long, while people had already come back and were already rebuilding their lives.”
Diomande used startup money the UNHCR gave him to rent a place to live with other former refugees.
Little by little, Diomande reactivated his client network, and business started to take off. Now he has created his own company and lives in a newly built apartment in a new neighborhood of Abidjan.
His advice to the people returning now: Stay strong.
“They can do even better than the people who stayed here, but shouldn’t think that everything will fall on their lap," he said. "The government might give a little help, but ultimately it will be up to them to make it work.”