The United Nations refugee agency says it is recommending that refugee status for Sierra Leoneans who fled their country should be ended because the root causes of the West African nation’s refugee problem have ceased to exist.
“There have been fundamental and durable changes since peace was declared in January 2002,” said Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The official ending of refugee status for Sierra Leoneans will take place on 31 December this year, following consultations with the Governments of the main countries where they have sought asylum, and also with the Government of Sierra Leone.
During the height of Sierra Leone’s civil conflict as many as two million of the country's six million citizens were displaced with some 490,000 fleeing to Liberia and Guinea.
With UNHCR's help more than 179,000 Sierra Leonean refugees returned home voluntarily between September 2000 and July 2004, while many others returned by their own means.
UNHCR says that around 43,000 refugees from Sierra Leone continue to live in exile, mainly in neighbouring countries, including the Gambia, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria.
The agency stressed that refugees in these countries who want to return voluntarily will be given assistance, and also that those still in need of international protection will be able to remain in their current host country.
According to the UN, individuals most responsible for the atrocities committed during the country’s conflict have been indicted and tried – or are in the process of being tried – by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The UN also says there have also been significant improvements in the rule of law and respect for human rights throughout the country, while two sets of elections – in 2002 and in 2007 – were determined to be free and fair by the international community.