Sierra Leone: Repatriation Process Endangering Health and Security of Thousands

Freetown/New York, April 12, 2002 — In advance of the May 14 elections in Sierra Leone, internally displaced persons and recently repatriated Sierra Leonean refugees are being sent back to their regions of origin. However, the rushing of this repatriation process is endangering the health and security of hundreds of thousands of people. Guarantees of safe passage, facilitation of transport, and care for the most vulnerable have not been upheld.

The entire 15,000 inhabitants of Blama, a camp for the displaced near Kenema, were sent home last weekend. These displaced had registered to leave after the elections on the official lists drawn up by the government and the United Nations. However, the population was suddenly sent home, stopping at transit sites set up in Daru and Segbwema—a two-day walk from Kenema—and then on to their villages. There is no government protection and no UN representatives are present along the route. In addition, no assistance or medical facilities have been set up along the route by the authorities or the UN.

This week just over 6,000 displaced persons from Mile 91 camp have had to leave for Makeni without any assistance. Pregnant women have had to walk because they had not managed to register on the list. One of them gave birth under difficult circumstances upon arrival. This population expected to get the aid promised them at the transit sites. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have visited a number of transit sites where there is a lack of water and medical facilities. Relief packages that are being distributed for their return—two months worth of food, cooking utensils, soap, plastic sheeting, and two blankets—is little adapted to their re-installation needs (e.g. no tools or seeds). These repatriated must then walk a further two days, or sell their goods to pay for transport, to reach their home region, and from there, their chiefdom. Some of these chiefdoms are situated along the border with Liberia, an area that UN agencies consider too unsafe for their own expatriate staff.

Displaced persons have departed Blama and Jembe camps, in some cases leaving behind children so that they can continue with their schooling. Parents have paid expensive school fees and know that there are not yet any schools in their home villages. UNHCR does not consider that they have an obligation towards these children, as they should have returned home with their families. These children are therefore without assistance or protection.

Motivated by a political agenda, the haphazard and rushed repatriation process for some 250,000 people is jeopardizing the protection and assistance that these people are due. The promises made to this population in order to encourage them to return home voluntarily, have not been kept.

This situation is especially troubling in light of the recently published UNHCR survey of sexual exploitation of displaced persons and refugees in the region that highlighted the vulnerability and lack of protection of this population.

MSF has set up emergency medical posts in Segbwena and Makeni to help the most vulnerable. In Makeni and Matotoka, the MSF teams are providing drinking water to the displaced.