In a race against time and the weather, the United Nations refugee agency is stepping up its efforts to move tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees away from volatile border zones in south-western Guinea to safer sites in the interior of the country.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has deployed more search teams into the isolated "Parrot's Beak" region to bring people to safety, a spokesman for the agency told the press today in Geneva. Ron Redmond said UNHCR was opening a second new refugee settlement in the Albadaria region of central Guinea, and continuing the construction of two more new sites in the same area.
So far, more than 27,000 refugees have been relocated to the Albadaria region from the "Parrot's Beak" - a thumb of Guinean territory jutting into Sierra Leone that has been largely cut off by fighting since last September, leaving thousands without regular humanitarian assistance, the spokesman said.
Many of the settlements in the Parrot's Beak were deserted or destroyed following recent fighting in the region, and tens of thousands of the refugees have now congregated in just a few camps one of which - Kolomba, at the farthest tip of the Parrot's Beak - currently houses about 60,000 people.
"Some are so desperate that they are taking the risk of walking back to Sierra Leone through dangerous, rebel-controlled borderlands," Mr. Redmond said.
A UNHCR information team has been regularly broadcasting radio messages into the Parrot's Beak warning people of the hazards of walking back to Sierra Leone. The information team visited Kolomba camp yesterday to stress the dangers and to provide information on UNHCR's programme to assist refugees within Guinea.
The only organized return to Sierra Leone is by sea from Conakry, where UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration operate boats. Although UNHCR is not encouraging returns to Sierra Leone, those who wish to do so from Conakry can register for the regular sailings, the spokesman said. Since September, an estimated 30,000 people have returned by boat from Conakry to Freetown.