USCR Country Report Sierra Leone: Statistics on refugees and other uprooted people, Jun 2001

Report
from US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Published on 19 Jun 2001
Nearly 400,000 Sierra Leoneans were refugees and asylum seekers at the close of 2000: an estimated 300,000 in Guinea, about 70,000 in Liberia, nearly 10,000 in Gambia, about 4,000 in Nigeria, some 2,000 in Ghana, 2,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, 1,000 in Mali, and more than 7,000 new asylum seekers in Europe.
Between 500,000 and 1 million Sierra Leoneans remained internally displaced. An estimated 210,000 or more persons became newly uprooted during the year.

Approximately 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated from neighboring countries during 2000.

About 3,000 refugees from Liberia remained in Sierra Leone at year's end.

Political Background

In 1991, Sierra Leone's brutal insurgency began with a series of cross-border attacks from neighboring Liberia. Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, under the command of Foday Sankoh, attacked villages in eastern Sierra Leone's lucrative diamond-mining region, causing widespread population displacement. West African peacekeeping troops (known as ECOMOG), and the poorly disciplined Sierra Leonean military (SLA), failed to check an increasingly incoherent and inhumane rural rebellion.

In 1995, a South African mercenary company, hired by the Sierra Leonean government, restored a semblance of peace and held the rebels at bay long enough for democratic elections to take place in early 1996. A short-lived peace agreement between the government and the rebels in 1996 led to the withdrawal of the South African mercenaries. ECOMOG troops remained. The following year, the military ousted newly elected President Tejan Kabbah, established an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and invited the RUF rebels to share power.

In early 1998, the Nigerian contingent of ECOMOG staged a reverse coup and drove the AFRC junta from the capital, Freetown. President Kabbah returned to office in March 1998. Throughout 1998, ECOMOG and pro-government militia, known as Civil Defense Forces (CDF), controlled the southern half of the country, main roads, and major urban areas. RUF/AFRC rebels maintained control over the eastern diamond-mining region and rural areas in the north.

RUF/AFRC military campaigns with names like "Operation No Living Thing" produced further destruction, displacement, and a campaign of terror that included chopping off civilians' fingers, hands, and limbs. Fewer than 1,000 Sierra Leonean "amputees" survived this form of torture, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Rebels abducted thousands of women and children for use as sex slaves and child soldiers.

In early 1999, RUF/AFRC rebels invaded Freetown, occupying two-thirds of the capital for several weeks before ECOMOG troops pushed them back. Rebels killed, raped, and maimed civilians and destroyed up to 75 percent of housing in some neighborhoods. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

In mid-1999, the United Nations brokered a power-sharing agreement between the RUF rebels and the government. Known as the Lome Accord, it granted amnesty for rebel atrocities, elevated RUF leader Foday Sankoh to the status of vice president, and placed him in charge of lucrative diamond-mining concessions. The peace agreement also called for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the release of all abductees, and the disarmament of some 45,000 combatants.

In October 1999, the UN established a peacekeeping mission to Sierra Leone (known as UNAMSIL) to assist the government with the implementation of the peace agreement and disarmament.

2000 Peace and War

The year began with high expectations for peace in Sierra Leone but brought renewed war instead. By year's end, the conflict had expanded into neighboring Guinea. The RUF rebels continued to control roughly 50 percent of the country.

During the first four months of the year, continued attacks on civilians, slow deployment of passive and poorly prepared UN peacekeeping troops, and lack of cooperation by the RUF undermined the implementation of the Lome peace accord. Gunmen continued to rape, rob, and kill civilians.

In early February, the UN Security Council virtually doubled the peacekeeping force to 11,000 troops and toughened its rules of engagement after Kenyan and Guinean UN troops surrendered armored personnel carriers and their weapons in repeated rebel ambushes. In early May, the RUF took some 360 peacekeepers hostage and killed at least 11 in the worst attack on UN soldiers since 1993 in Somalia. The Sierra Leonean government arrested Foday Sankoh and other RUF leaders in the capital in mid-May. Some 18,000 combatants who had disarmed took up weapons, and war resumed. Great Britain deployed several military battalions to evacuate British nationals and defend the capital. Several hundred British soldiers remained in Sierra Leone at year's end.

A November cease-fire between government and rebel forces enabled the RUF and its allies to increase cross-border attacks into neighboring Guinea. In late November and December, the Guinean government retaliated, launching military attacks against rebel-held territory in Sierra Leone.

During the last four months of the year, the widening war caused tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees to flee from Guinea back into Sierra Leone, creating a potential humanitarian emergency. A mid-December advisory by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) warned that decisive political action was "needed to stop regional destabilization" and urged sanctions against Liberia for its continued "arms-for-diamonds" trade with the RUF rebels.

Humanitarian Conditions and Displacement

An estimated 500,000 to 1 million Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced at the end of 2000. Some UN agencies put the number of displaced as high as 2 million - nearly half the country's total population.

At the beginning of the year, the government considered phasing out internal displacement camps in which approximately 130,000 people were receiving assistance. At year's end, however, new camps were under construction and the number of people receiving international assistance in camps or rural host communities had risen to 350,000.

The number of internally displaced persons registered to receive assistance was only one indicator of the level of displacement. Thousands of displaced persons may have been in need of assistance, but were not registered to receive it in urban areas. Tens of thousands of civilians may have been displaced and in need of assistance in rebel-held areas beyond the reach of relief agencies.

More than 200,000 people became newly uprooted during the second half of the year. The majority of displaced persons lived with host families. Average household size in some government-held areas was between 20 and 25 people.

International aid agencies expanded relief efforts into rebel-held areas of the north and east early in the year, despite insecurity and threats to aid workers. All international assistance to RUF areas stopped after the war resumed in May. Hopes of improving humanitarian conditions for the estimated 1 million people in RUF territory were dashed. At year's end, virtually no health structures or other social services functioned outside of government-controlled areas.

New population displacement created an increased burden in government-held zones. Government bombings against RUF strongholds in May and June caused civilian casualties and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Some 30,000 to 40,000 displaced persons from Makeni and Magburaka poured into Mile 91, a town located at a strategic cross-roads between the north and south. Early reports indicated that as many as 80,000 displaced persons fled the area. In July, fighting in the area threatened civilians and limited the amount of aid reaching Mile 91. Aid agencies struggled to provide adequate water and sanitation. Conditions rapidly improved during the next three months, and a camp for some 4,000 displaced persons was constructed.

Mile 91, however, remained the dividing line between opposing forces and was a potential military target. As a result, the International Committee of the Red Cross recommended that aid should be provided instead to smaller nearby villages of less strategic importance. New arrivals continued to trickle in to Mile 91 from RUF areas in search of medical assistance and food.

Three government-held enclaves in RUF areas each hosted 2,000 to 5,000 displaced persons. In late July and August, reports of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in those areas caused alarm. Aid agencies continued to disagree over the degree of emergency in areas such as Bumbuna. Relief workers struggled to overcome limited airlift capacity and continued security concerns to expand humanitarian assistance to those areas.

In the Port Loko area of Sierra Leone, some 70 miles (110 km) north of Freetown, the number of displaced persons tripled, according to UN estimates. At year's end, some 20,000 people resided in a camp for internally displaced persons at Port Loko. Another 60,000 displaced persons lived with host families in the area, constituting a heavy burden on the local population. Most fled between May and August as a result of renewed hostilities, continued banditry, and factional fighting in the area.

Approximately 130,000 internally displaced persons lived in camps in urban areas in the south. The majority resided in seven camps outside the capital.

The UN secretary general expressed deep concern in August that "current hostilities have had a dramatic impact on food security and caused dozens of civilian casualties, as well as the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, increasing their vulnerability to malnutrition, disease, and other hardships."

Tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees returned from Guinea during the final four months of the year because of dangerous conditions there. They were unable to go back to their homes in rebel-held parts of Sierra Leone, adding to the numbers of internally displaced persons and increasing the need for emergency humanitarian assistance at year's end. (See Refugees from Sierra Leone below.)

During a site visit in October, USCR found that Sierra Leone's chronic shelter shortage contributed to overcrowded conditions in displacement camps. USCR encouraged donors to provide sufficient international assistance to alleviate the shelter problem. USCR also urged Sierra Leonean government officials to encourage internally displaced persons from safe government-held areas to return home in order to alleviate overcrowding in camps.

At year's end, efforts were underway to establish two new camps to accommodate the flood of Sierra Leoneans fleeing from refugee camps in Guinea. In November, the UN appealed for $78.1 million to meet increased humanitarian needs in Sierra Leone.

Refugees from Sierra Leone

Nearly 400,000 Sierra Leoneans were refugees in 2000. Most fled from rural areas in 1997 and 1998 as a result of widespread violence. The vast majority, some 300,000, resided in increasingly unsafe refugee camps in Guinea. Some 70,000 remained in Liberia. Others sought refuge in various West African and European countries.

Some 13,000 new Sierra Leonean refugees fled to Guinea during 2000. About 5,000 Sierra Leoneans fled to Forecariah, Guinea in May. In August and September, another 8,000 refugees fled in canoes across a river from northern Sierra Leone into Gueckedou, Guinea, because of clashes in RUF rebel areas. Fearing rebel infiltration, Guinean government officials briefly attempted to turn back young Sierra Leonean men at the border and limit entry to women, the elderly, and children under age ten.

As many as 40,000 refugees returned home, on their own, to Sierra Leone from Guinea and Liberia during the year. The majority returned to Freetown and western Sierra Leone because of armed conflict in Guinea and violence against refugees there.

Some 7,000 refugees returned to villages in the Lungi area, in northwestern Sierra Leone. Most fled on foot or boarded canoes after refugee camps in Forecariah, Guinea were attacked. Unconfirmed reports indicated that several thousand more refugees from Forecariah returned to the rebel-held area of Kambia in Sierra Leone.

During the last four months of the year, at least 28,000 Sierra Leoneans returned to Freetown by boat. According to UN estimates, some 80 percent came from camps in Guinea, and 20 percent were most likely Sierra Leoneans who lived in the Guinean capital but were not registered as refugees.

At year's end, thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees had returned without assistance to eastern Sierra Leone from both Liberia and Guinea, according to UN estimates. Most settled in Sierra Leone's Kenema area.

The majority of Sierra Leonean returnees could not return safely to their homes in rebel-held areas. Many sought shelter in already overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons. Others lived in villages, hosted by the local community. A small number chose to return to rebel-held areas on their own.

Repatriation and Assistance

At the outset of 2000, in anticipation of peace, UNHCR began to provide assistance to targeted areas of eastern and western Sierra Leone in preparation for organized repatriation. However, UNHCR ultimately did not encourage repatriation during 2000 because of continued insecurity and the resumption of war in May.

UNHCR's repatriation policy became more complex late in the year when Sierra Leone's conflict spilled into Guinea, and tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees fled from Guinea back to Sierra Leone. UNHCR dispatched a special cross-border team to facilitate the refugees' emergency repatriation to Sierra Leone. A UNHCR-chartered ferry returned some 1,600 refugees safely to Sierra Leone by year's end. The Sierra Leonean government chartered a ferry to transport thousands of Sierra Leoneans stranded in the Guinean capital.

"No one is enthusiastic about promoting the return of refugees in less than ideal conditions to only part of their country of origin, [but] this is the only practical solution for those who wish to return," a UNHCR official stated.

UNHCR opened an office in Lungi in November and expanded community-based assistance for both refugees and war-affected populations in the area. Returning refugees received plastic sheeting and nails to build temporary shelters in host communities. UNHCR opened a second transit center in the Freetown area and moved to identify additional resettlement areas in Port Loko, Moyamba, Bo, and Pejehun.

Despite UNHCR's improved monitoring and assistance to returnees, relief agencies in Sierra Leone lacked the capacity to respond to a massive refugee return. A USCR site visit to Sierra Leone in October documented numerous cases of refugees who suffered serious abuses in Guinea and had received no assistance after returning to Sierra Leone. USCR found that returning refugees frequently settled into areas where they had relatives, friends, or contacts from previous periods of displacement. Some refugees told USCR that they had chosen to return to camps for displaced persons because they had lived there before becoming refugees.

Aid workers cautioned that the war was not finished and RUF rebels might resume attacks inside Sierra Leone. As the Sierra Leonean refugee crisis deteriorated in the final days of 2000, USCR called on the international community to protect Sierra Leonean refugees' right to asylum in Guinea.

Refugees from Liberia At the beginning of 2000, an estimated 7,000 Liberian refugees remained in Sierra Leone. An unknown number returned home on their own in 2000. At year's end, several thousand continued to live in the country, according to UNHCR estimates. Most had lived in Sierra Leone for more than a decade.

During 2000, UNHCR began to screen the residual Liberian refugee population to determine their legal status and assist them with local integration.

Copyright 2001, USCR