UN refugee agency prepares for start of large-scale repatriation to Liberia

UN refugee agency prepares for start of large-scale repatriation to Liberia

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The United Nations refugee agency is preparing for the start next week of a potentially dramatic increase in the repatriation of Liberians, with plans to help more than 100,000 exiles return to the once war-torn West African country ahead of elections scheduled for October under the new peace agreement.

The United Nations refugee agency is preparing for the start next week of a potentially dramatic increase in the repatriation of Liberians, with plans to help more than 100,000 exiles return to the once war-torn West African country ahead of elections scheduled for October under the new peace agreement.

The first land convoy to Lofa county in northwestern Liberia, near the borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone, is scheduled to leave Guinea on Monday. A third of the 340,000 Liberians in the region are believed to originate from Lofa, once Liberia’s breadbasket. Guinea’s Kouankan camp alone hosts 30,000 of the refugees, who fled 14 years of vicious civil war in their homeland.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers called for the repatriation movement to be accelerated after he saw improved conditions on the ground when he visited Liberia last week.

At the other end of the country, UNHCR is also preparing for facilitated returns to Maryland county in the southeast, bordering Côte d’Ivoire, where it had earlier held off the return movement due to a curfew imposed by the Government last month after riots linked to alleged ritual killings.

The authorities lifted the curfew earlier this week and a UNHCR team is assessing return options across the border in the Ivorian town of Tabou, host to more than 48,000 Liberian. Convoys could start by the end of the month.

Lofa and Maryland are among the seven counties declared ready for return by the Liberian Government last month. In all, 13 out of 15 counties have now been cleared.

UNHCR has facilitated the return of some 7,200 Liberian refugees since the voluntary repatriation operation started last October. Overland convoys arrive on a regular basis from Sierra Leone and Guinea while repatriation by sea and air are organized from Ghana and Nigeria. Another estimated 100,000 Liberian refugees returned on their own in 2004.