The UN refugee agency is stepping up its voluntary repatriation operation for refugees from Côte d’Ivoire living in Liberia. On Thursday, UNHCR repatriated a group of 546 Ivorian refugees who had been living in the counties of Nimba and Grand Gedeh.
The repatriation convoy carried more people than the combined total of the past three convoys of an exercise launched in October to take back people. The refugees had fled the violence that erupted after the disputed presidential election of November last year. UNHCR is planning return convoys every Tuesday and Thursday as more refugees are signing up to be helped home.
UNHCR and its partners used trucks, buses, cars and ambulances to take the returnees to Côte d’Ivoire via the Toe Town transit centre on the Liberian side of the border between the two countries. Here they were given bread, sardines, high energy protein biscuits and water. They also receive blankets, mats and jerry cans.
“The momentum to return is on and we will continue to assist them to do so,” later said UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Fatima Mohammed as the convoy moved into Côte d’ Ivoire, the refugees waving goodbye.
The main return areas for the refugees were the towns of Toulepleu and Danane in western Côte d’Ivoire. Refugees from previous convoys mostly returned to Blolequin, Toulepleu, Doukoue and Guiglo, other towns in the west that experienced heavy fighting at the height of the Ivorian crisis.
Some say they are returning because the war is over and there is now peace in their home areas. Others say they need to go back to study, cultivate their fields, find work or reunite with relatives after becoming separated during the violence.
“I am a high school student. I am returning home because I want to go back to school,” said 20-year-old Daple, who has two children of her own. Kui-Zoto said he wanted to go back to resume his unusual career. “I was a comedian at the Toulepleu radio station. I am returning to continue with my comedy work.”
Ivorian refugees in Togo are also beginning to return. On December 1, UNHCR arranged a first convoy of 47 refugees from the more than 600 who signed up for repatriation.
Just over a year after the presidential election that sparked the six months of violence, some 96,000 Ivorian refugees have returned from Liberia. Others would like to go back, but are waiting to see what happens after legislative elections due on Sunday in Côte d’Ivoire.
UNHCR welcomes the momentum in repatriation as it is an indication of improved security in Côte d’ Ivoire. In August, the governments of Liberia, Côte d’ Ivoire and UNHCR signed an agreement to help refugees who want to repatriate. UNHCR signed similar agreements with Ghana, Guinea and Togo.
There are still some 170,000 Ivorian refugees in West Africa. The majority of them are in Liberia (138,164), Ghana (15,948), Togo (5,110) and Guinea (2,480.)