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Liberian fisherman returns to lost family as refugee status deadline looms

Telling the Human Story, 15 May 2012

© UNHCR/S. Momodu
Fisherman Joseph regains his smile as he gets ready to rejoin his family in Liberia.

CONAKRY, Guinea, May 15 (UNHCR) During almost 20 years of exile in Guinea, Joseph did not know if his family was alive or dead. When he recently found out by chance that they had survived the attack that caused him to flee his native Liberia, he decided he must go back.

"For the first time, I am eager to return home. I want to see my family," said the 55-year-old fisherman, who is joining a growing number of Liberian refugees who are returning home with UNHCR help before they lose refugee status.

Once the so-called cessation clause has been invoked on June 30, Liberian exiles will no longer be regarded as refugees because their country has enjoyed nine years of peace. "The reasons that forced Liberians to flee from their country no longer exist," noted UNHCR Representative in Liberia Cosmas Chanda.

Joseph, who spoke to UNHCR in Conakry, is among hundreds of refugees in countries of asylum such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia, who have decided to return home before the deadline.

Since the start of this year, UNHCR has facilitated the repatriation of more than 4,800 Liberian refugees compared to 1,762 for the whole of last year, and some 126,000 by land, air and sea since peace returned to Liberia in 2003 after years of devastating war.

"We are happy that a lot of people are now opting for voluntary repatriation. The new Liberia needs people," said Tchakoly Ali Tchanile, head of the UNHCR sub-office in N'zerekore, Guinea.

The refugee agency supported a recent mass information campaign in five West African countries to inform Liberian refugees in the region about the situation in Liberia, which has held two presidential elections since 2003. The campaign also told them of the options for repatriation or local integration in their host country.

Joseph is among those who decided to return, though he was in no hurry to go back until he heard word of his wife and five children. He recalled the day the family was separated in 1991. He was out fishing when rebels attacked their home town in south-eastern Liberia.

"There was no way to return home and search for them [his family], so I fled to Guinea. They did not know my whereabouts and I did not know whether they were alive," he told UNHCR, adding that he had recently been in contact by phone after discovering from a refugee returnee that they were alive.

"Talking to my family was the happiest moment of my life. When I separated from my family, my wife was pregnant. I am very happy to learn that my unseen child [a daughter] is now in high school," added Joseph, who is expected to be flown back to Liberia soon after years of working as a labourer in Conakry.

In addition to arranging transportation for registered refugees who wish to return home, UNHCR provides a cash grant to refugees and additional funding for those who need transport to their home areas after repatriation to Liberia.

But thousands of Liberians wish to remain overseas. Like Joseph, Vontaay has been living in Guinea for two decades, but the 44-year-old Liberian has decided to stay. "I am a locally integrated refugee," he said, adding that UNHCR had given him shelter assistance and income-generation support. "I have found a new home in Guinea," he said proudly.

The UN refugee agency is working with the Liberian authorities to deliver national passports to all Liberians wishing to locally integrate. In addition, UNHCR is working with its partners and the authorities to facilitate integration and to deliver work and residence permits to all Liberians wishing to locally integrate so that their legal status is secure after the cessation.

Joseph, meanwhile, is already planning his future. "I am very grateful to UNHCR for their assistance to us refugees over the years. Having located my family, I will be returning home a happy man to continue my fishing and start a fresh new life."

Between 1989 and 2003, more than 350,000 Liberian refugees fled the civil war raging in their country. The fighting and violence left an estimated 200,000 dead more than 800,000 internally displaced.

In Liberia, UNHCR has been also involved in the return of more than 320,000 internally displaced people to their areas of origin. This programme was successfully completed in 2006.

By Sulaiman Momodu
in Monrovia, Liberia




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

On July 21, 2004, the final UNHCR convoy from Liberia crossed over the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone with 286 returnees. This convoy included the last of some 280,000 refugees returning home after Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war which ended in 2000. Overall, since repatriation began in 2001, UNHCR has helped some 178,000 refugees return home, with a further 92,000 returning spontaneously, without transport assistance from UNHCR.

UNHCR provided returnees with food rations and various non-food items, including jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats, soap and agricultural tools in order to help them establish their new lives in communities of origin. To promote integration of newly arrived returnees, UNHCR has implemented some 1,000 community empowerment projects nationwide. Programmes include the building and rehabilitation of schools, clinics, water and sanitation facilities, as well as micro-credit schemes and skills training.

UNHCR and its partners, alongside the UN country team and the government, will continue to assist the reintegration of returnees through the end of 2005.

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

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