BY Ibrahim Tarawallie and Kevin Hill
As World Refugee Day is observed across the globe, acting representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR), Abid Ali Mir, has disclosed that there are still 42,000 Sierra Leonean refugees outside the country.
The UN agency is currently calling for the end of refugee status for all Sierra Leoneans seeking refuge outside of the country. With the end of the decade-long civil conflict and two subsequent elections determined by the international community to be ‘free and fair’ the root causes of the refugee problem, according to the UNHCR, have ceased to exist.
Refugee status will cease to be given to Sierra Leoneans at the end of 2008, following negotiations with the governments of Sierra Leone and countries of asylum.
At least 42,000 Sierra Leoneans are currently living as refugees in the Gambia, Guinea, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. Those wishing to voluntarily return to Sierra Leone can still benefit from UNHCR assistance if they do so before the end of the year.
Individuals still in need of international protection will be able to remain in their country of asylum as refugees. Those who do not qualify for special protection, but do not wish to return to Sierra Leone, will be expected to legalize their status in their host nation.
Speaking to journalists at the UNHCR’s office in Freetown, Abid Ali Mir said there were ongoing efforts to find durable solutions to the plight of all refugees worldwide. Mir said the UNHCR is currently working with government to find durable solutions to the specific problems faced by Sierra Leonean refugees.
Mir said that the theme for this year’s World Refugee Day celebration is ‘local integration, new home, a brighter future.’ “The day will be used to reflect on the resilience and perseverance of refugees all over the world.” he said.
“The second most preferable solutions for refugees are local integration. It is important to reduce the rate of dependency,” he said.
He said from October 2004 to January 2007, the UNHCR has repatriated 30,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone back to their country and that over 20,000 refugees have voluntarily returned, which he said was a great achievement for his organization.
According to IRIN, the Integrated Regional Information Network which is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 30,000 Liberian refugees remain in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol and has ratified the 1987 African Refugee Convention. Refugees are not guaranteed equal protection under law in Sierra Leone, including unrestricted freedom of movement and but are protected from arbitrary arrest or detention. Refugees also cannot own land or other immovable property in Sierra Leone.
In May of 2007, Sierra Leone passed the Refugee Protection Act which mandated the creation of the National Refugee Authority. The NRA is charged with formulating refugee policy, ensuring the rights of refugees and granting refugee status and providing for the reception and care of refugees.
The UNHCR and its implementing partners provide food, education, medical services, water and sanitation to camp-based refugees in Sierra Leone. Refugees who live outside camps can also access government-run schools and medical facilities.