The landmark convoy bearing more than 250 returning refugees entered Liberia at the Bo Waterside border crossing. Government officials, UNHCR representatives and humanitarian workers attended a welcoming ceremony at the nearby Sinje transit centre. Further details were not immediately available.
In a related development, two UNHCR-organized flights last Saturday brought home 33 Liberian urban refugees from the capital of Guinea, Conakry. "I am glad to return to my country after 14 years of exile in Guinea", said 70-year-old Sia Fanio before boarding one of the flights.
Another returnee, Aminata Camara, said her decision to return was prompted by economic hardship. "I cannot earn anything in Conakry and that is why I prefer to return home," she said, adding that she hoped to open a small business back home in the town of Kakata.
The Liberian repatriation has been one of the largest UNHCR operations in Africa for the past two-and-a-half years and it is scheduled to end on June 30. Since the cut-off date was announced, growing numbers of Liberians have expressed a desire to return home with UNHCR help by air, sea and road.
Since the start of the Liberian repatriation operation in October 2004, more than 150,000 refugees have returned to Liberia. In addition to 100,000 returns assisted by UNHCR - half of them from neighbouring Guinea - another 50,000 Liberian refugees returned home on their own over the past few years, encouraged by the restoration of peace and the inauguration of the democratically elected president and government.
In Liberia, UNHCR has been also involved in the return of some 314,000 internally displaced persons to their areas of origin. This programme was successfully completed in April last year. Liberian internally displaced had been living in camps, mainly around the capital Monrovia, during the more than decade-long Liberian conflict.
UNHCR has returned Liberian refugees by air, sea and road from all the neighbouring countries and the region. On arrival, refugees are provided with a transportation grant, food and a number of household items.
Reintegration and improving livelihoods of returnees have been long-term key priorities for UNHCR. The agency and its partners have been repairing shelters, roads, wells, schools and clinics. It has also provided vocational training programmes, which in turn have been helping to secure much-needed jobs in the community.
Following the end of the organized repatriation, UNHCR and those countries still hosting thousands of Liberian refugees are preparing to embark on long-term programmes aimed at their local integration. The ultimate goal of these programmes will be to bring the displacement chapter in West Africa to a successful closure.
There are still some 83,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa. More than 23,000 remain in Ghana, 22,000 in Côte d'Ivoire, 15,000 in Sierra Leone, 15,000 in Guinea, some 4,000 in Nigeria, and the rest are scattered in other countries of the region.