DAKAR, 20 July (IRIN) - There has been a recent surge in the number of Liberian refugees returning home from Cote d'Ivoire as conditions within Liberia improve and the security situation in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire deteriorates, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.
Some 5,100 refugees had returned from Cote d'Ivoire to Maryland county in southeastern Liberia and Nimba county in north central Liberia during the past four weeks, the UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday.
That compared with only 700 returnees from Cote d'Ivoire during the first five months of the year, it added.
"The improved security situation in Liberia is the top reason that people are now returning," Fatoumata Kaba, UNHCR spokeswoman for West Africa, told IRIN.
Most of the returnees had been living in the Guiglo and Tabou prefectures of western Cote d'Ivoire for over 10 years.
"It took a while for people to realise that the situation in Liberia was not as bad as expected," Kaba explained. "They thought it was still very dangerous."
However some of the returnees said concern over security conditions in western Cote d'Ivoire had also prompted their departure, the UNHCR statement said.
The region has been racked by ethnic violence linked to Cote d'Ivoire's civil war for the past three years. Last month, over 100 people were slaughtered in a series of tit-for-tit killings near Duekoue, a town just 32 km from Guiglo where there is a UNHCR-run camp for Liberian refugees.
"The West is highly militarised. It adds to the sense of insecurity and recent events have scared them so, yes, the Liberians are moving back even though many of them would prefer to stay here if they could," one UN aid worker based in Guiglo told IRIN by telephone.
When Liberia's 14-year civil war finally came to an end in August 2003, there were an estimated 350,000 Liberian refugees scattered across West Africa.
Despite spontaneous returns and a voluntary repatriation programme launched by UNHCR in October 2004, some 47,000 Liberian refugees remain in Cote d'Ivoire, mostly in the forested southwest of the country, which produces large volumes of timber and cocoa.
But life has grown more difficult for them since Cote d'Ivoire itself plunged into civil war in September 2002.
Diplomats and aid workers say Liberians have been recruited as mercenary fighters by both the government of President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel forces occupying the north of the country.
"The Liberians were very well integrated before the war - they were not even living in camps," said Kaba, the UNHCR spokeswoman said.
But she added: "Life has become very difficult in Cote d'Ivoire. Since the fighting started the refugees have lost all their coping mechanisms. many have lost their jobs as they are suspected of being rebels."
In March 2003, when the Liberian civil war was approaching its climax and Cote d'Ivoire itself was still the scene of full-scale hostilities, the UNHCR counted some 100,000 Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire.
At that point, the UNHCR launched an emergency resettlement programme that saw 6,500 Liberian refugees shipped out to the United States.
Kaba said many Liberian refugees who entered the programme but did not qualify for one of the prized tickets to the United States had hung around in the vain hope that the resettlement programme might be re-launched.
But after an information campaign lasting four months, many were finally getting the message that the US resettlement programme was over and that Liberia was once more safe to return to, she added.
Most of the Liberian refugees in Cote d'Ivoire are from Nimba, Maryland and Grand Gedeh Counties. Until recently these areas lacked the facilities to cope with large convoys of returning refugees, but reception arrangements in these counties have now been improved, Kaba explained.
The UNHCR said in its statement that it expected the rate of return from Cote d'Ivoire to slow down again as Liberia approached presidential and parliamentary elections on 11 October.
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