Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2017, 13:52 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Sierra Leone

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Sierra Leone , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

More than 130,000 Sierra Leoneans remained refugees or asylum seekers at the end of 2002, including some 70,000 in Guinea, an estimated 40,000 in Liberia, about 5,000 in Ghana, 5,000 in Gambia, 2,000 in Nigeria, and about 10,000 Sierra Leonean asylum seekers in the United States and other industrialized countries.

More than 200,000 Sierra Leoneans uprooted by war returned to their home areas during the year, including some 90,000 refugees who repatriated.

Sierra Leone hosted about 60,000 refugees from Liberia, including some 40,000 who arrived during 2002.

Pre-2002 Events

Ten years of civil war and massive human rights violations by combatants killed 50,000 or more people and forced an estimated three-quarters of a million Sierra Leoneans to flee their homes during the 1990s.

Rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) gained international notoriety for their practice of cutting off civilians' hands and ears.

The rebels lacked a clear political ideology, but controlled lucrative diamond mines in eastern areas that fueled their war effort.

RUF suffered military setbacks during 2000–2001 after British government forces and UN peacekeeping troops intervened. Government troops from neighboring Guinea also attacked RUF rebels in Sierra Leone's border area.

Rebel leaders agreed to a cease-fire in mid-2001, and 45,000 rebel and pro-government militia disarmed by year's end. The UN peacekeeping contingent expanded to 17,000 soldiers, making it the largest UN military operation in the world.

Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians returned to their homes in 2001, and an estimated 80,000 Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated.

Peace Consolidated in 2002 Sierra Leoneans made rapid progress toward permanent peace during 2002. Some 1.8 million people voted in democratic national elections in May, and thousands of former combatants reintegrated back to normal life.

Local government officials gradually resumed their work in regions that had long been under rebel control.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, created by the UN and the Sierra Leonean government to prosecute war crimes, began to function in July.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission gradually began to document war-related atrocities despite receiving only $2 million of the $10 million requested from international donor nations to support its work. UN peacekeeping troops widened their deployment to all areas of the country.

Sierra Leoneans and international diplomats expressed confidence that the country's civil war was finished. Intensified warfare in neighboring Liberia, however, raised security concerns in border areas. "Peace in Sierra Leone could ... be jeopardized by the escalating crisis in Liberia," a UN report warned late in the year.

The U.S. government continued to grant Temporary Protected Status to about 2,000 Sierra Leoneans already residing or visiting in the United States. The U.S. policy has provided temporary safe haven to Sierra Leoneans on a year-by-year basis since 1999.

Population Movements Toward Home

Uprooted Sierra Leoneans returned home rapidly and in massive numbers during 2002, particularly early in the year before the country's national elections in May and the planting season during May–June.

More than 100,000 internally displaced persons went back to their home communities during the year, and some 90,000 refugees repatriated after years of exile in Guinea, Liberia, and other West African countries.

About 30,000 refugees hastily repatriated to Sierra Leone under duress when their refugee camp in Liberia came under attack by combatants in that country's civil war.

About half of the returning refugees received assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other aid agencies in the form of transportation, cooked meals, and medical care during the journey home, or overnight accommodations at transit centers. About 8,000 repatriated by boat to Freetown, the capital.

UNHCR suspended the organized repatriation flow for six weeks during the middle of the year because an influx of Liberian refugees into eastern Sierra Leone forced the agency to divert trucks to that emergency from the repatriation program.

Budget constraints and concerns about conditions in returnee areas (see Reintegration Conditions below) prompted UNHCR to cease repatriation movements late in the year, although some refugees continued to trickle home on their own.

The large and often uncontrollable population movements, while welcomed as a sign that peace had taken root, placed a burden on key towns where tens of thousands of returnees congregated for months while rebuilding their houses in rural areas or while making their own assessments of local security conditions.

UNHCR provided water, sanitation, and health care services to alleviate overcrowding in the host communities.

The largest population returns during 2002 occurred in the remote eastern districts of Kailahun and Kono – previously the heart of rebel territory and the most heavily damaged regions during the war.

More than 90 percent of all refugees who repatriated during the year returned to Kailahun and Kono, as did tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.

Reintegration Conditions

According to a study by the UN Development Program, Sierra Leone ranked as the poorest, least developed country in the world during 2002.

Some areas of the country, dangerous and inaccessible during the decade of war, revealed extensive destruction once the war was over, making reintegration and reconstruction an immense challenge.

Major areas of population return "lack adequate basic services," a UNHCR report stated. Conditions in some former rebel-controlled regions, particularly the eastern districts of Kono and Kailahun, were "found to be far worse than previously assumed," another UNHCR report acknowledged.

Some areas could provide only 10 percent of returnees' needs for potable water and other fundamental services, according to UN aid officials. The war left more than 300,000 houses destroyed and 80 percent of schools and health clinics heavily damaged.

Roads and bridges in key returnee areas awaited repairs. International agencies struggled to launch humanitarian programs in remote regions that had been virtually empty of people only a few months earlier.

Financial support for assistance efforts was minimal compared to the needs. Donor nations provided about $60 million to UN relief and development organizations for programs in Sierra Leone, but ignored aid officials' request for nearly $40 million more.

Health programs and water and sanitation projects received about one-third of the funds requested by UN aid agencies.

Serious financial difficulties encountered by UNHCR meant that "an adequate level of staffing was never attained" in Sierra Leone, UNHCR admitted in a July report. UNHCR officials shifted money from reintegration projects to fund emergency programs for new Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone. "UNHCR could not properly respond with community-based ... reintegration activities as planned," the agency stated.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) conducted a site visit to Sierra Leone in June to assess reintegration conditions. USCR found many local residents and international relief workers optimistic about the opportunity for permanent peace and reconstruction, but frustrated by inadequate financial support for basic programs.

"The simultaneous double influx of Liberian refugees and Sierra Leonean returnees into heavily damaged border areas poses a highly unusual challenge in an area that already lacks housing, medical services, water systems, and other basic services destroyed in Sierra Leone's war," stated a USCR report, "Upheaval in Liberia and Repatriation to Sierra Leone: Findings and Recommendations," published in July.

The USCR report urged more support to help returnees rebuild their homes and recommended that the Sierra Leonean government should revise its certification requirements for teachers in order to encourage more teachers to return home from refugee camps to rectify the country's serious teacher shortage.

USCR also warned that many single women were encountering difficulties reclaiming their property and "continue to be victimized by sexual assault and domestic violence at a high rate." USCR recommended that "consideration of the special needs of women should be built into all aid and development projects" to help women reclaim their land, build houses, start businesses, and have a role in community decision making.

Despite problems, at least minimal levels of humanitarian assistance reached all areas of the country by year's end. Refugees and internally displaced families returning home received a two-month food supply from the World Food Program.

A food assessment conducted by relief organizations in June recommended an additional four-month food distribution to needy returnees, but aid workers generally were unable to implement the recommendation because of concerns that donated food supplies were inadequate.

Many returnees received blankets, sleeping mats, cooking utensils, soap, plastic sheeting for shelter, and sanitary items for women. Aid agencies helped 3,000 families reconstruct their houses, while tens of thousands more returnees repaired their homes without assistance.

Some 130,000 families received seeds, tools, and other agricultural assistance. The American Refugee Committee provided small-business loans to more than 2,000 Sierra Leoneans – overwhelmingly women – to help energize moribund local economies.

Enrollment at schools increased more than 50 percent as teachers returned and communities gradually repaired schools with help from humanitarian agencies. Some families chose to leave their children in large towns to attend schools until education systems and other basic services improved in rural areas.

UNHCR deployed at least 20 international and local staff members to monitor protection problems encountered by returnees to Sierra Leone.

In response to a study by UNHCR and Save the Children Federation/United Kingdom in February alleging widespread sexual abuse of refugees in West Africa, humanitarian agencies conducted workshops to educate aid workers about proper codes of conduct.

Relief and development organizations in Sierra Leone formed a committee to recommend preventive measures "to minimize the risks of exploitation and abuse in every sector of refugee/returnee operations," UNHCR reported.

Despite pervasive optimism about long-term peace, some residents and international analysts warned that national government officials and some local traditional chiefs were lapsing into the same corruption and cronyism that marked policymaking before the war.

"Deep-seated grievances that fueled the war in Sierra Leone still simmer and are in danger of mounting again because of grassroots dissatisfaction with the current chieftain system," USCR's report stated in July. The country initiated new elections for local chiefs late in the year in an effort to make them more responsive to their constituents.

Refugees from Liberia

Widening civil war in Liberia pushed some 40,000 new Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone during 2002. They joined 15,000 to 20,000 Liberian refugees who had fled to Sierra Leone during the 1990s.

Most new refugees arrived in relatively good physical condition. They initially congregated in towns and villages along Sierra Leone's border with Liberia, where many of them preferred to remain because of ethnic links to the local ethnic Kissi population and proximity to their homes in Liberia.

Sierra Leonean officials and UNHCR regarded the border region as insecure and gradually persuaded most of the refugee population to move to designated camps a safer distance from the border.

By year's end, about 40,000 refugees lived in seven camps near the towns of Bo and Kenema in south central Sierra Leone.

Two of the camps were newly constructed, while five others previously had served as transit centers for Sierra Leonean refugees returning home. The camps ranged in size from 4,000 to 7,000 occupants.

About 20,000 Liberian refugees lived on their own, including nearly 5,000 in Freetown and more than 3,000 in Bo and Kenema. More than 10,000 continued to live in border villages with little or no assistance. Sierra Leonean officials continued to express concern that the presence of refugees at the border might inadvertently attract cross-border attacks from Liberian combatants.

Services at the seven refugee camps were inconsistent. UNHCR officials – already stretched to conduct reintegration programs for Sierra Leonean returnees – acknowledged that they lacked adequate funding and staffing to keep pace with the influx from Liberia. UNHCR's weaknesses "made it difficult to raise assistance standards for refugees above bare basic levels," a UNHCR report acknowledged.

Many refugees received only partial food rations for several months, until full rations began in the second half of the year. A funding dispute between aid agencies halted services at one camp for a week.

Refugees at another camp rioted over poor health services. A USCR site visit to Sierra Leone in June, followed by a USCR report a month later, urged UNHCR to expand its staff in Sierra Leone "to better address the ... repatriation emergency as well as the Liberian refugee influx emergency."

Tensions between the refugees and local residents simmered throughout the year. Some Sierra Leoneans regarded the refugee population as a security threat and a competitor for the small amounts of humanitarian aid flowing into the country.

Community leaders near some camps tried to restrict refugees' movements and activities.

quot;Concerns persist over the infiltration of armed dissidents" from Liberia, UNHCR reported in September. "The screening of the incoming populations is therefore essential if the civilian nature of refugee camps is to be maintained."

Government authorities established a separate internment camp in October to segregate Liberian combatants from the refugee population.

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