Sierra Leone: UN agency to begin first relocation of refugees to safe area

Sierra Leone: UN agency to begin first relocation of refugees to safe area

For the first time since the civil war began in Sierra Leone more than a decade ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will start returning thousands of refugees to their original homes in a newly declared safe area of the country.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told the press today in Geneva that the agency was preparing to help some 7,500 Sierra Leoneans, former refugees in Guinea, return to their homes in the Kambia district of northwest Sierra Leone starting in early December.

"On Monday, the Sierra Leonean Government declared the last chiefdom of Kambia district 'safe,'" he said. "This followed the completion of the demobilization process, the deployment of the Sierra Leone army, the presence of military observers and the restoration of state structures and authorities in the district."

Until now, UNHCR had helped some Sierra Leonean refugees return to selected safe regions of their homeland, but not to their original villages which were often still in insecure areas. The December operation underscores a widening sense of stability in new parts of the war-ravaged country, the spokesman said.

Along with its partners, UNHCR has been rehabilitating the local infrastructure in Kambia since September and will continue to support the returnees with clinics, schools, water and sanitation and market place projects, micro-credit schemes and by distributing seeds and tools. Similar community-based projects may be launched in other parts of the country, especially the badly war-damaged eastern regions, including Kono and Kailahun Districts.

Tens of thousands of refugees have already returned to the area "spontaneously," including 20,000 to Koidu, reflecting increased security problems in Guinea and hopes for a permanent peace in Sierra Leone, according to UNHCR. Their most critical need is shelter, though virtually all of the region's infrastructure including schools and clinics were damaged.