At its peak, Perry Town returnee camp hosted 11,315 Liberians who had returned from exile only to find that their home areas were not yet ready to receive them. They were among the tens of thousands who had flocked home on their own following the peace deal and exile of former President Charles Taylor in August 2003.
"We knew we were coming back to conditions that were not 100 percent, but we decided to return from Sierra Leone because we were homesick," said one returnee. "At least in an internally displaced situation, we could easily access assistance, unlike in areas of return where there were no humanitarian agencies."
Another noted, "Compared to the other camps, Perry Town returnee camp offered the best services and facilities. The shelter had spacious rooms - two bedrooms - and it was good for the children to have their own space."
Returnees at the camp received monthly food rations from the World Food Programme, safe drinking water, relief items, free health care provided by MERCI, and education in a school run by UNICEF. The environment was bustling, with returnees teaching each other traditional skills, women selling farm produce, and the occasional outdoor theatre performance by Talking Drum Studios.
But as one returnee noted, "Many of us are happy to leave the camp even though we know we now have to fend for ourselves." Another said, "The challenge is ahead but we are tired of staying in camps and willing to go home to start farming again."
Amid improving conditions in Liberia, UNHCR started last October to help Liberian refugees and displaced people to return to their areas of origin. Those going home under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation programme receive a return package that consists of a transport grant that ranges from US$5-45 depending on the distance home, food such as wheat, oil and maize from WFP, as well as relief items such as kerosene, lanterns, plastic sheets, sleeping mats, blankets and kitchen sets.
"We are happy as the package provides us with needed items that some of us can't afford or that are not even available in our communities," said Bendu Massary, a returnee at Perry Town camp.
Perry Town returnee camp closed in late June after its last inhabitants left for home. The structures were dismantled and the land returned to its owner. It was the sixth such camp to close in the Liberian capital, with another 27 returnee camps and irregular settlements emptying out as well.
"This is a significant step towards Liberia's recovery as formerly uprooted Liberians can begin the process to rebuild their lives and their country as they engage in productive activities such as farming to help feed themselves and restore the dignity of this country that has so much potential," said UNHCR's Outgoing Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello.
He added, "It is also a demonstration of Liberians' confidence in the peace process that there is security to restart normal living once again."
Increasing returns are also attributable to projects by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to increase the absorption capacity in areas of return. Okello noted that community-driven initiatives can be supported with the participation of the community members.
UNHCR is implementing over 1,500 community empowerment programmes like the building or repair of schools, clinics, roads, bridges, water points and sanitation facilities. Other projects involve developing facilities to increase the absorption capacity of communities and building their capacity to participate in development initiatives and manage programmes.
The UN refugee agency, together with the Liberian government and its partners, has embarked on a new scheme to attract teachers and medical personnel with incentives to return home to provide much-needed services.
More than 26,000 Liberian refugees have been assisted to go home since October last year. UNHCR has also contributed to the return of 188,636 internally displaced Liberians as part of an inter-agency collaborative effort.
By Sarah Brownell