Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - Sierra Leone

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 25 May 2004
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - Sierra Leone , 25 May 2004, available at: [accessed 17 February 2018]
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.

Some 71,000 Sierra Leoneans remained refugees or asylum seekers at the end of 2003, including some 43,000 in Guinea, an estimated 12,000 in Liberia, 6,000 in Gambia, about 5,000 in Ghana, 2,000 in Nigeria, and about 3,000 Sierra Leonean asylum seekers in the United States and other industrialized countries. Some 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated during the year.

Sierra Leone hosted nearly 70,000 refugees from Liberia, including 12,000 who arrived during 2003.

Pre-2003 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.

Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians returned to their homes in 2001, and an estimated 80,000 Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated. Sierra Leoneans made rapid progress toward permanent peace during 2002. 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. 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 at the end of 2002.

Slow Recovery in 2003

Sierra Leone began to progress toward re-establishing governmental institutions, restoring the country's economy, and rebuilding its war-torn health care system, schools, and other social services during 2003. Most Sierra Leoneans, however, realized negligible improvement in their daily lives. While rice production reached nearly 80 percent of pre-war level in 2003, output only met 50 percent of the country's needs. The overall primary school enrollment rate for the country exceeded more than 70 percent at year's end, but only half of Sierra Leone's primary schools functioned, "often in very inadequate conditions," UNICEF reported. More than half of the population still lacked access to potable water.

In July, the UN reduced its peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone by 4,500 to 12,000 troops. Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission functioned during the year, international observers warned that the Commission's proceedings could agitate former elements of RUF and other militias in Sierra Leone. A significant number of Sierra Leoneans who fought in neighboring Liberia and in Côte d'Ivoire returned, but, overall, Sierra Leone remained relatively stable politically and militarily. In November 2003, the U.S. government extended for six months Temporary Protected Status for about 2,000 Sierra Leoneans, but planned to terminate it in mid 2004.


Uprooted Sierra Leoneans continued to return home at a steady pace during 2003. In February, a national internally displaced person resettlement program concluded after assisting nearly 225,000 Sierra Leoneans return to their home communities since April 2001. Nearly 245,000 other internally displaced persons returned home spontaneously without assistance during the same period. Some 35,000 refugees repatriated after years of exile in Guinea, Liberia, and other West African countries during 2003, more than 28,000 from Guinea and more than 4,000 from Liberia, including about 3,000 who repatriated by boat to Freetown, the capital.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian assistance agencies provided transportation, cooked meals, and medical care during the journey, or overnight accommodations at transit centers. Nearly 250,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have repatriated during the past three years, including more than 150,000 o f them with UNHCR assistance. More than 75 percent of repatriating refugees and thousands of internally displaced persons returned to the remote eastern districts of Kailahun and Kono – previously the heart of rebel territory and the most heavily damaged regions during the war.

Reintegration Conditions

According to a study by the UN Development Programme, Sierra Leone was the poorest, least developed country in the world during 2003. More than 75 percent of Sierra Leoneans lived on less than $2 per day. Destruction caused by more than a decade of brutal civil war in major areas of population return "exceeded expectations, and continues to pose serious problems," UNHCR reported. Some areas could provide only 5 percent of returnees' needs for potable water, sanitation, and other essential services, according to UNHCR. The war left more than 300,000 houses destroyed and 80 percent of schools and health clinics heavily damaged. Despite on-going rehabilitation, Sierra Leoneans had repaired less than 10 percent of war-destroyed houses by the end of 2003. UNHCR and other international agencies continued to repair and construct new schools in returnee areas, but rehabilitation remained insufficient.

In Kailahun District, more than 200 out of 450 war-damaged schools had yet to re-open. Roads and bridges in key returnee areas remained damaged, forcing some returnees to walk considerable distances to collect food rations. A lack of basic social services in Kailahun and Kono Districts "remained an impediment to promoting voluntary repatriation," as "Sierra Leonean refugees originating from these areas enjoyed a higher standard of living in asylum countries," UNHCR acknowledged.

Poor security remained a problem in some border areas during the year. Because of Liberian militia incursions, Sierra Leonean authorities declared some returnee areas near the Sierra Leone-Liberia border unsafe for resettlement. Although the authorities declared areas near the Sierra Leone-Guinea border "safe for resettlement," UNHCR remained concerned over the presence of the Guinean military. Donor nations provided about $94 million to UN relief and development organizations for programs in Sierra Leone, but ignored aid officials' request for nearly $30 million more.

Repatriating refugees and internally displaced families returning home received a two-month food supply from the World Food Programme (WFP). UNHCR advocated for an additional four-month food ration for returnees once they reached their areas of origin, but was only able to secure an additional two-month food ration. Returnees received blankets, sleeping mats, cooking utensils, soap, plastic sheeting for shelter, water cans, a lamp, and sanitary items for women. UNHCR, its partners, and development agencies implemented community-based small-scale agriculture, skills training, and income generation programs. Aid agencies also helped rehabilitate health centers.

Refugees from Liberia

Continued civil war in Liberia pushed some 12,000 new refugees into Sierra Leone during the year, joining some 55,000 Liberians who had fled to Sierra Leone during the past decade. Most new refugees arrived in February and March. Heavy fighting in Liberia in July and August did not produce a major influx of Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone. UNHCR worked with Sierra Leonean governmental officials and UN peacekeepers to provide security and assistance to the newly arrived Liberian refugees.

UNHCR provided temporary accommodation near the Sierra Leone-Liberia border before transferring the majority of the refugees further inland to newly established and more secure camps. Some 3,000 newly arrived refugees preferred to remain in towns and villages along the border, where many of them had ethnic links to the local ethnic Kissi population and received no humanitarian assistance from UNHCR.

By year's end, nearly 55,000 refugees lived in eight camps near the towns of Bo and Kenema in south central Sierra Leone. The camps ranged in size from 5,000 to 9,000 occupants. The largest, Gondama, accommodated nearly 9,000 refugees. Constructed in early 2003 to accommodate new arrivals, Tobanda camp housed nearly 8,000 Liberians.

About 15,000 Liberian refugees lived on their own, including more than 5,000 in Freetown and some 3,000 in Bo and Kenema. Some 3,000 continued to live on their own with little or no international assistance in border villages in Kailahun and Pujehun Districts. UNHCR and its partners restored some services that funding shortfalls forced the agency to reduce in 2002, but struggled to keep pace with the influx from Liberia. UNHCR expanded in-patient wards and improved water and sanitation facilities in health clinics in each of the eight camps.

As in previous years, primary schools remained severely overcrowded. Newly arrived school-aged refugee children in Tobanda camp, which initially lacked a primary school, attended class in transit center booths. "The [Tobanda education] situation remained far below standard for much of the year," UNHCR acknowledged. UNHCR and its partners built housing and latrines in Gondama and Tobanda camps before the onset of heavy seasonal rains in July. Camp-based and urban Liberian refugees received full food rations from WFP during 2003.

In response to a study by UNHCR and Save the Children Federation/United Kingdom in February 2002 alleging widespread sexual abuse of refugees in West Africa, humanitarian agencies conducted workshops to educate aid workers about proper codes of conduct during 2003. Relief and development organizations in Sierra Leone formed a committee that, in part, introduced sexual exploitation standards of accountability and community and agency reporting mechanisms, according to UNHCR. The agency hired five additional protection assistants to monitor protection problems encountered by Liberian refugees. Despite an increase in awareness among the refugee population and improved reporting systems, Liberian refugee women and girls continued to suffer from sexual violence. UNHCR provided basic medical and psychological support to victims of rape and other domestic abuse. UNHCR also informed victims of their legal options, but recognized that, "the state legal system remains severely overburdened."

Traditionally tense relations between the refugees and local residents improved during 2003. Host communities benefited from UNHCR-implemented projects that included community markets and water and sanitation facilities, but some Sierra Leoneans still regarded the refugee population as a security threat and a competitor for the small amounts of humanitarian aid flowing into the country.

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