U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers is beginning a tour of West Africa to assess a refugee situation that has suffered from years of civil wars.

Mr. Lubbers will spend eight days in the region and will visit Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

According to U.N. spokeswoman Jenny Clark, this marks the third visit to West Africa for the high commissioner, who is due to arrive Thursday in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown.

"This is a region that is quite important for UNHCR," she said. "We have a major program for repatriation and reintegration of Sierra Leonean refugees, and the high commissioner while he's on the ground will also look into prospects for possible future returns of refugees in Liberia."

All three nations have suffered from decades of civil war, which caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee into neighboring countries.

Guinea was dragged into the fighting from Sierra Leone and Liberia when rebels crossed borders to conduct training exercises and buy weapons.

Now, according to a relief worker in Sierra Leone, Rachel Goldstein, the situation there is stable enough for refugees to return home.

"People feel it is safe to come home, and they want to come home," she said. "Liberia, on the other hand, is a little different. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is awaiting deployment of United Nations Mission in Liberia, also known as UNMIL and once that happens and the situation is secure, then UNHCR will consider the repatriation of refugees."

Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to visit Liberia at the end of his tour to look into the situation there. According to the UNHCR, 46 new staff members were deployed throughout Liberia this week to open offices that had been shut down because of security concerns. They have set a target of October 2004 to begin repatriation of Liberian refugees.