Nearly 23 years since civil war broke out in Liberia on Christmas Eve of 1989 forcing thousands of Liberians to become refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the voluntary repatriation of Liberian refugees will come to an end on 31 December this year.
The UN refugee agency in collaboration with partners has so far facilitated the voluntary repatriation of more than 150,000 Liberian refugees mainly by organizing road convoys and by flights. During Liberia's civil crisis, thousands of civilians were uprooted from their homes and became either internally displaced persons or refugees mainly in West Africa. It was not until 2003 when peace was restored with the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers under the aegis of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
Since 2004, the UNHCR has been working closely with the Government of Liberia through its Refugee Agency, the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) and countries of asylum to facilitate the return of Liberian refugees. Some refugees had spent nearly 23 years in refuge in countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo and The Gambia.
In a video message to Liberian refugees urging them to return home as their refugee status ended on 30 June 2012, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had encouraged her compatriots to return home and that the contribution of every Liberian was essential for the development of the country.
"What happened on 30 June this year was the end of refugee status for Liberians. What is now happening is the end of voluntary repatriation of thousands of refugees who had registered to return home. This means as of 1 January 2013, we would no longer be organizing repatriation for Liberian refugees," explained the UNHCR Representative, Mr. Cosmas Chanda, describing the imminent end of the repatriation process as a remarkable achievement for humanitarian assistance and an indicator of the restoration of peace and stability in Liberia.
"For this year alone we have facilitated the return of more than 25,000 Liberian refugees exceeding our initial planning figure of 15,000. We will continue to assist Liberian refugees who had registered to return home up to 31 December. We're thankful to everybody for this accomplishment including donors for their support and to refugees for embracing the voluntary repatriation process," said Representative Chanda, adding that the end of repatriation for Liberian refugees is happening just a few years after the voluntary repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees ended.
Pointing out that life as a refugee is not forever, the Executive Director of the LRRRC, Cllr. Wheatonia Y. Dixon Barnes said her Commission will provide various support to returnees including those who had acquired specialized skills while in refuge to search for job opportunities. "Our doors are open to any returnee who needs our guidance," she noted.
UNHCR and LRRRC officials say refugees who had decided to locally integrate in countries of asylum are being provided legal and social assistance such as the issuance of Liberian passports in collaboration with Liberia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.