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More than 1,600 Liberians return in one day after refugee status ends

News Stories, 31 July 2012

© UNMIL/Liberia
Hope floats: Homebound Liberians cross the Cavalla river from Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia.

MONROVIA, Liberia, July 31 (UNHCR) A month after their refugee status ended, more than 1,600 Liberians have returned home in the single-largest movements in recent years.

Last Friday, 1,566 Liberians were brought home on buses and barges from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire. Another 79 were flown from Ghana to Liberia on a plane provided by the UN Mission in Liberia. Together, they made up the largest group of returnees in a single day since 2009.

They were received in Liberia by UNHCR staff in Monrovia, Zwedru and Harper offices after security and immigration formalities. Officials from the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission were also there to welcome and assure them about security and assistance to reintegrate.

Among Friday's returnees was Nathaniel Sawo, who left Liberia 20 years ago to escape forced recruitment during the civil war. Now 37 years old, he returned from Côte d'Ivoire with his wife and two children, who were seeing their country for the first time.

"It is a pleasure to be home," said Sawo. "When we were fleeing, we spent several days walking through dense dangerous forest. This time, we were safely transported back home. We thank the UNHCR for facilitating our return."

Between 2004 and 2011, 169,300 Liberian refugees returned. Of these 138,600 were assisted by the UN refugee agency including over 1,200 in 2010 and more than 1,700 last year. This year has seen a surge in the number of returnees, with more than 12,500 since January. It comes as refugee status for Liberians ended on June 30 this year.

Expressing delight that more Liberians are returning after many years in exile, UNHCR's Representative in Liberia Cosmas Chanda said the number of refugees who registered to return before the June 30 deadline exceeded expectations.

"We thank donors for their support to the repatriation process, but we need more support to facilitate voluntary return," he said, adding that the ongoing repatriation involves huge logistical, human and financial requirements. "We had planned to receive 15,000 returnees this year as the refugee status for Liberians ended. However, about 25,000 persons had registered to return."

More than 12,000 Liberians still need help to repatriate. Currently, returnees receive repatriation and transportation grants for adults and children. Oretha Coffa, a 33-year-old single mother of three, thanked UNHCR for the grant. "I am going to use the amount I've received to start up a small business to support my family," she said, hoping for brighter days ahead.

Liberia has abundant fertile land, rain and sunshine. With a strong belief that the soil is a bank, returnee Sawo said he will be farming for a living. "With agriculture I will be able to feed my family, as well as sell the surplus to take care of other needs."

Liberia's civil wars, which raged between 1989 and 2003, killed more than 250,000 people and forced some 750,000 to flee their homes. Many have since returned with UNHCR help and many more on their own.

By Sulaiman Momodu, in Monrovia, Liberia

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UNHCR country pages

Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

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Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

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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.

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