The intensifying conflict between anti-Government rebels and regular Liberian army troops, combined with reports of Liberian soldiers harassing refugees, has prompted a sharp increase in the number of Sierra Leoneans returning home, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
While previously only a dozen or so Sierra Leoneans were returning home through the Jendema border crossing each day, UNHCR estimates that since mid-December, some 1,300 have gone back to their country.
In an update issued on Wednesday, the agency noted that "small numbers" of civilians - from both Liberia and Sierra Leone - were fleeing the fighting in northern Lofa County and crossing into Sierra Leone.
"Returnees reported being harassed by Liberian Army soldiers," UNHCR said, adding that troops allegedly entered the Sinje II refugee camp, situated about 80 kilometres northwest of Monrovia.
While noting that improved security conditions in Sierra Leone have contributed to the increase in returns, the agency warned that "any mass return, coupled with the arrivals of Liberian refugees, would put pressure on the already limited reception capacities in Sierra Leone."
This capacity could be increased to 4,600 people in eastern Sierra Leone "if sufficient material and shelters are made available," UNHCR said.