A simple bridge crossing symbolizes hopes and challenges of UN refugee agency
Clasping the hand of a young child on either side of him, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres strides across a bridge over a river separating two countries, a symbol of both hope in the future and the daunting challenges that could derail it in one of the world’s many war-torn regions.
The children, wearing new white T-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Hope,’ look serious, their faces caught halfway between a diffidence born of a difficult past and the glimmer of hope for a better future.
The West African scene, an iconic moment in this year’s celebration of World Refugee Day, is a microcosm of the enormous tasks facing UNHCR as it tackles the crisis of more than 8 million people around the world who have fled their countries because of conflict or oppression - in itself a mere drop in the ocean but bearer of an indelible message.
“Our experience has shown that half of the countries that solve their conflicts, return to conflict within five years,” Mr. Guterres said yesterday as he led the two children and more than 120 other people across the bridge from Sierra Leone to Liberia on their return to a homeland that has only recently found a fragile calm after years of war.
“That is why Liberia needs attention now, not in two or three years. We need to mobilize resources for immediate gains,” he added, meeting a convoy of 125 returnees at Liberia’s Bo Waterside area on the Mano River as they came back home from camps in Sierra Leone.
There, he climbed aboard a truck with 15 refugees, arriving 40 minutes later at the Sinje transit centre, where the returnees were to spend a night before heading to their home villages.
“Everybody has a right to a place called home,” Mr. Guterres told them, while warning of the difficulties ahead and calling for more help from the international community. He said Liberia deserved that help after 14 years of war and noted that the impoverished country was setting an example by hosting almost 20,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.
Since October 2004, when a ceasefire back by UN peacekeepers ended the war between rival factions, UNHCR has helped repatriate some 69,000 Liberians, including 14,000 from Sierra Leone.
As of the end of 2005, the number of refugees worldwide reached a 26-year low, dropping last year alone by 1.1 million. But that still left 8.4 million people needing urgent UNHCR aid in a country not their own.