Mano River: The desire to go home and the environment of choice

Guiding principles on internal displacement. UNOCHA. 1998 "(... ) ensure that internally displaced persons are not pressured to return to any area against their will. It is not acceptable for displaced persons to be retuned to locations that are still affected by armed conflict."
Linked to issues of security and safety is the right of people who have fled their homes, no matter what label or status they have been assigned (be it refugee, displaced or returnee), to choose whether or not they want to leave the camps and go home, and when. It is true, most people do want to go home. The question is rather how and under what conditions are they being sent home? Some feel that they lack the information about what to expect and what resources are available to them. Returnee man, age 34. Tiama camp, Sierra Leone February 12, 2002: "I am waiting to go back to Koidu, but I also want to hear from the UN since they brought us to this camp ... I do not want to go back until I hear that there is something organized for lodging and our houses to be re-built (tools, brick making supplied, etc.) because I have small children." Many others wanted to wait until the elections took place to be sure that there are no security problems, having experienced what "protection" really means, while in the camps in Guinea. Refugee woman, age approximately 65. Boreah camp, Guinea - March 1, 2002: "I want to go home but I have a lot of questions and a lot of frustration. My place is burned down. Who will help me to get tools and material to rebuild it? ... I do not want to go home until after elections to see if the peace stays. I also do not want to go back to an empty village. I am old and do not want to be alone." When faced with the options of either going back home or to another camp, there are those who, after 10 years of running through a series of camps where assistance and protection have often been minimal or non-existent, simply cannot imagine starting over again in yet another camp. Refugee man, age approximately 85 Boreah camp, Guinea March 1, 2002: " ... If I go back now I hope that they will give us tools to rebuild our house, and food. One thing is clear. I will not go back to Sierra Leone to live in another camp. I know what it is to start in a new camp and I am tired of moving all the time." The way in which the resettlement is happening today does not provide the possibility for people to choose if they are ready to go home now, in 6 months or even later. This is especially true in the case of the IDPs, where the only option is to leave the camps before June 2002. This was clearly outlined during an UN/NaCSA/NGO Coordination Meeting held in Kenema on April 6, when the NaCSA representative explained that the camps will be closed on June 20. If people don't want to go to their home areas then they will have to find someplace else to live besides the camps. This does not allow any provisions for those people who do not want to, or cannot, return home at the moment, making this more of a "removal" program as opposed to a "resettlement" program. This process is explained by the Sierra Leone government's own guidelines: "All registered IDPs and displaced returnees originating from newly declared safe chiefdoms will automatically enter the resettlement process. This will be indicated during the final food distribution in IDP camps, temporary settlements and host communities, when a line will be marked across each ration card to signify that the household has entered the resettlement process." Unfortunately the notion of voluntary resettlement has been removed by the automatic inclusion of all displaced persons into the process of resettlement once an area has been declared safe. This effectively takes away the right of all the displaced to assistance and protection, in one broad stroke. The people who were interviewed in some of the displaced camps complained of feeling that they had been lied to, further aggravating their feelings of having no choice of whether or not to leave the camps. One woman interviewed in Lebanese School Displaced camp in Kenema (Eastern Province) explained. Displaced woman, age 30 Lebanese School camp, Kenema, Sierra Leone April 4, 2002 "I left on foot to get my supply in Segbwema because they told us there would be no trucks until June or even later. When I was on the road, I saw trucks going to Segbwema filled with people from this camp! I returned here hoping to get on one of the trucks. I have small children and if I cannot get transport I will have to leave some of our things behind." Others felt pressure to leave the camps due to different factors. In several IDP camps, the agencies providing food for the people stopped these distributions following requests from the government to do so. MSF teams witnessed other organizations putting padlocks on water pumps inside the camps. Information was a major problem for the IDPs. Due to an improper sensitization campaign, some feared that they would not be able to vote in the camps and that they must be present in their home communities in order to vote, which is not true. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) was supposed to have done sensitization in the camps, which obviously was not done. Dauda: "The government has told us that we have to go home ... They told me that I must go home to vote in my own village ... " Many were in a rush to start their trip to the secondary distribution points as quickly as possible. As most families have to walk and carry their belongings and children at the same time, several days are needed to make this trip. The dates given for the distributions were very limited. But if they do not take part in the resettlement as scheduled for their camp, then they loose access to the food and the non-food item package (NFI) offered, since by definition of the resettlement document, they are no longer displaced. But "displaced" is not a status to be taken away. If you are a displaced and feel too unsure of the situation to go home right now, what is your "status" then? Displaced woman, age 26. Splendid camp. Sierra Leone - April 2, 2002: "My biggest problem is the fact that I have no house in Kono. For my future, I want to go back home but there is nothing there ... I have no money to pay for transport ... I am tired of staying where I am a stranger, but I do not know how I will manage when I get back." If the camps are going to close, where can people like this woman go? There is still no clear plan on camp consolidation or closure. No one that MSF has spoken to knows what will happen to the camps after the end of the resettlement program in June 2002. There is even talk of forcibly evicting any stragglers from the camps, using police and military do to so. There are to date, no plans for continued assistance to the people who remain after June. A young man at Trade Center camp in Freetown had gone with the April 2002 resettlement to Makeni (Northern Province). He had left for the resettlement, collected his package and returned to Freetown within less that a week. When asked why he had returned, he explained that his house in Makeni has been partially destroyed. Also as a young man looking after a wife and their children, Makeni was too difficult because he had no job there. At least in the camp he had a small job that provided him with about US$9.00/month, shelter and food (when there was supply). Now he does not have the means to go home and make the necessary repairs to his house. He knows the camp will close in June, and that he may no longer have shelter, food or a job, but he will think about that when the time comes. A 35 year-old mother of six living at Trade Center camp was recently involved in the resettlement operation to Makeni (April 2002). Her village was outside of the main part of town. She had not visited it in the three years since leaving there for the camp. She registered for the recent resettlement and picked up her package in Makeni, then proceeded to her village to check the situation there. She found the place mostly deserted, and her house burned down. When she was there she saw many soldiers around with guns that made her afraid. She saw one soldier beating a young girl. She did not know the reason, but said that the military police flogged the soldier in return. Under these conditions she returned to Makeni to collect her goods, and she made her way back to Freetown. This is far from providing an environment that will ensure people are being given a free and fair choice about their lives, or protecting their right to assistance. Those who were previously refugees in Guinea also explained the conditions under which they made their "choice" to be repatriated to Sierra Leone. Sia: "In Dabola the UN came and asked us if they wanted to leave to come back to Sierra Leone. (When asked if this was her free choice, she replied 'What did we have to choose between, being killed and chased in Guinea or being killed and chased in Sierra Leone? Do you think that is a choice?') We decided to come back because at least we would be at home in Sierra Leone and not harassed by the local population." This feeling of insecurity which these refugees have faced and under which they are asked to choose between staying in a camp and repatriation, is clearly understood by UNHCR as their report explains: " ... their return in less than ideal conditions was facilitated by UNHCR due to severe limitations in preserving asylum in Guinea."