UN refugee agency gearing up for spontaneous returns in Liberia

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects an increase in the number of Liberians voluntarily returning home through the course of this year and in the run-up to the elections scheduled for the second half of 2005. “We are standing by to start our reintegration programme for the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees once we can resume operations in areas of return,” UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski told a news briefing in Geneva today. “Under the programme, we will, with our partners, rehabilitate schools and clinics, rebuild roads, and provide water and sanitary facilities in these areas.” He added that returnees would be provided with food aid, farming tools, blankets, mats, corrugated iron for roofs and brick-making equipment to rebuild permanent homes. UNHCR has been documenting reports of spontaneous returns from neighbouring countries, particularly Guinea and Sierra Leone. Liberians are also coming home from Ghana, including 225 refugees who reunited with their families over the weekend after being rescued at sea by UN peacekeepers. In the “very near future” the agency will open a transit centre in Gbarnga to help IDPs now crowded in overburdened camps, as well as refugees crossing borders into Liberia, Mr. Janowski said. UNHCR also plans to start facilitating returns from the region in September, after the rainy season – pending further deployment of peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and improved security in areas of return. UNMIL is steadily increasing its strength to the authorized total of 15,000 troops to enforce last year’s ceasefire accord aimed at ending nearly 15 years of civil war in Liberia.