Mano River Report: Repatriation and resettlement: The real story

Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. UNOCHA. 1998 "Principle 28: Competent authorities (the State) have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country"
When talking of the current resettlement exercise, it must be clear that at this point it is a logistical program and not a true program of resettlement. This is due to a lack of respect for the basic rights of the people to be able to choose their fate, and to be treated with dignity at each stage of their return. These issues have presented themselves in different ways and are the results of a number of problems. For the majority of the people returning to their homes today in Sierra Leone, they are going back to nothing. Their houses have been burned to the ground and entire villages destroyed. There is often no safe drinking water available, no medical facilities, no schools and no jobs. This is especially true in the harder-hit rural areas on the eastern and northern parts of the country, where the bulk of the re-settlers are being sent. It is for reasons, according to the UNHCR, that a Resettlement Program is meant to involve more than just the physical movement of people. Its success depends on the presence of programs to assist people in rebuilding their lives and their communities. This should involve community-based programs that can help with the problems that are faced by those returning home, so that a lasting solution to the displacement of populations throughout the region can be found. "The underlying fragility of economic, social and political systems is apparent in the increasingly violent and protracted conflicts that destroy the lives and livelihoods of national and neighboring populations in the sub-region. To make the repatriation and reintegration of Sierra Leone refugees sustainable ... Humanitarian actions must be guided by policy initiatives and accompanied - not followed by - macro-economic and human development measures." This is not the case though in Sierra Leone today where very few projects for installing basic services have begun in the majority of the most precarious areas to which people are returning. This is in part because this program has been poorly planned and poorly organized. The decision to begin an actual mass movement of all of the people out of the camps throughout the country was taken very recently, leaving little time to organize the logistics of such an operation. In fact many agencies report that they are not ready, as it was agreed last year that this repatriation would take place gradually. The 2002 plan was drawn up following the resettlement exercises that took place in 2001. A "Lessons Learned" document was compiled, and using this along with resettlement guidelines of the government, it was clearly outlined that the people would be moved in safety, that transport would be guaranteed, appropriate resettlement packages would be provided, and medical screening prior to departure would be organized. Yet in practice today, we see a different story. After such a brutal war and all the problems the people of Sierra Leone have faced, it is to be expected that security is a concern for all those who are now going home. Ensuring a safe environment to return to is supposed be a part of this process, as stated in the government strategy: "1.2.2 the Government of Sierra Leone will only facilitate resettlement into an area when it is deemed that the area in question is sufficiently safe to allow for the return of displaced people in safety and dignity." This is certainly not the case for the three Kissi chiefdoms of Kailahun District (Eastern Province), where conditions for safe and dignified resettlement do not yet exist. In recent months, cross-border military activities from Liberia have resulted in the loss of life, kidnapping and looting. With the war gaining momentum in Liberia, this area remains at risk for these kinds of security issues to flare up at any time. The risk of moving people in unsafe conditions in Sierra Leone has been highlighted by UNHCR for years. More recently in Guinea concerns were raised months ago, especially in terms of how this is linked to the Sierra Leonean refugees still there. Originally, UNHCR stated that they would use their own criteria for declaring chiefdoms safe, and facilitate returns only to those areas considered safe by UNHCR, stating the agency "should avoid, to the extent possible, contributing to the serious IDP problem in Sierra Leone by encouraging mass repatriation of refugees from unsafe areas of origin ... ". However, since the influx of refugees and returnees from Liberia started to increase (February 2002), UNHCR has been transporting new returnees directly to Daru (for those going back to Kailahun District). In Daru (Eastern Province) the returnees then receive their two months supply of food and/or non-food item packages (NFI). From here, they are encouraged to make their own way home, even if they are from areas still declared unsafe. For the IDP families who chose voluntary repatriation (see below), it is an even more difficult scenario. They already had to walk to these distribution sites with a portion of their resettlement package (often more than 30 kg) as well as all of their belongings and their families. Then, just like the returnees, they too are encouraged to find their way home. It should be noted that at the end of April 2002, UNHCR has deemed the eastern portion of Kailahun District as too unsafe for staff to be based there.