The United Nations refugee agency said today it has resumed the repatriation of Liberian refugees who had been stranded in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, during the recent post-election violence there.
Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva that two chartered flights flew 264 Liberian refugees from the southern Ivorian city to Roberts International Airport near Monrovia, the Liberian capital, on Tuesday and Thursday.
“These refugees had first sought refuge at our Abidjan office in December, when they were targeted amid allegations that Liberian mercenaries were fighting for ex-president Laurent Gbagbo in western Côte d’Ivoire,” she said.
“They asked to be repatriated to Liberia, and one group was flown home in March before growing insecurity forced the operation to be suspended.”
Violence erupted in Côte d’Ivoire last December when Mr. Gbagbo refused to step down after he lost the UN-certified presidential run-off election in November to Alassane Ouattara. Mr. Ouattara was sworn in earlier this month after Mr. Gbagbo surrendered in April, and much of the violence ceased.
Ms. Fleming said most of this week’s returnees were heading home for the first time in nearly 20 years. Several were born in exile and are more fluent in French than English, Liberia’s official language.
“There are still some refugees at our office compound who have not yet made up their minds about repatriation, while new groups have been approaching us to find out more about returning to Liberia,” she said.
Ms. Fleming said that as the situation stabilizes in Côte d’Ivoire, the pace of the Ivorian outflow into neighbouring countries is gradually slowing. In the past week for example, she said, the average number of Ivorians crossing into Liberia has gone down from 200 to 130.
“However, UNHCR remains concerned about the slow progress of national reconciliation efforts in Côte d’Ivoire,” she said. “Fear of reprisals is preventing hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees from going back to their homes in the west and in parts of Abidjan.”
So far this year 434 Liberian refugees have been helped home from Abidjan, Ms. Fleming said.
Since 2004, UNHCR has helped more than 170,000 Liberian refugees to return home from the region.
“Our staff have been supporting Liberian returnee communities by rehabilitating schools, roads, clinics as well as providing water and sanitation facilities. We have also been helping
people to support themselves through income generating projects across the country,” Ms. Fleming said.
Although the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, there are still some 24,000 Liberian refugees in Côte d’Ivoire.