Refugees no more, Liberians ponder if they're ready to go home

Liberians who fled their home lost their refugee status last year. The UN has helped repatriate 155,000 people since 2004, but painful memories of two civil wars keep some from returning home.

The dirt roads that wind haphazardly through the hilly Ghanaian country around the Budumburam camp used to be packed with Liberians looking for a safe haven from the violence in their country.

There are still plenty of Liberians in Budumbudram, but they are no longer refugees. The international community last year invoked a cessation clause for Liberians, essentially a decision saying that their country, after suffering two bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003, was safe and stable enough to return home to.

The decision meant that Liberians around West Africa were stripped of their refugee status and forced to choose: go back home or get legal residence in their country of refuge. Liberia is at peace, but whether its refugees will return home is a barometer of stability and development in the West African countries where they have settled, many of which have long struggled with war and poverty.

“Wherever you find Liberian refugees, you’ll find voluntary repatriation,” says Tetteh Padi, program director for the Ghana Refugee Board.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced in January that it had ended its repatriation campaign, having returned home 155,560 Liberians since 2004 and almost 30,000 in 2012 alone.

But Stephanie Lepoutre, a UNHCR officer in charge of the Liberian refugee cessation, says many Liberians integrated so well into their host countries that they preferred to stay there. And still others applied to continue on as refugees, or just left the care of UNHCR altogether to find their own way.

“Some of those who were actually integrated into the local community … didn’t have any problems having to stay,” Ms. Lepoutre says. In Sierra Leone, for instance, Liberians comprised 99 percent of the refugee population and fit in well in the local society. Only about 1,000 repatriated last year, according to UNHCR.

Liberians in Ivory Coast, however, had little interest in sticking around, Ms. Lepoutre says, mostly because of the violence during that country’s 2011 civil war. Last year, over 17,500 went back to Liberia.

But of those who were in Ghana at the start of last year, 4,200 – almost half – decided to remain in the country, according to Gavivina Yao Tamakloe, settlement manager at Budumburam.

In Budumburam, many refugees complained of joblessness and alienation from mainstream Ghanaian society. But they also told tales of families murdered or threatened during Liberia’s wars, which killed an estimated 250,000 people, mostly civilians.

“I cannot go back to Liberia,” says Yassah Johnson, who fled Liberia in 1990 and lost both her parents to the country’s fighting. “I have nowhere to go. Who is going to receive me?”

During Liberia’s descent into chaos, 250,000 people fled the country, according to estimates by UNHCR, crossing overland or turning up at seaports in fishing trawlers or cargo ships.

Though its economy is growing rapidly and iron ore production restarted in 2011, Liberia remains one of the least-developed countries in the world, with 64 percent of the population living on less than a dollar a day, according to the African Development Bank.

Mr. Tamakloe says about 1,000 Liberians applied to remain as refugees over the past year because they felt they remained in danger if they returned to Liberia. But the bar to remain a refugee is high, and Tamakloe says most just wanted to keep their status in hopes of getting resettled in a Western nation.

Budumburam these days is something of a ghost town compared to its height, when it hosted 65,000 refugees, the settlement manager says. Liberians are leaving Ghana or moving elsewhere to look for work. Residents say Ghanaians are moving into their former houses in the camp.

Meanwhile, landowners are busy fighting in court over who owns the valuable land the camp sits on, which was appropriated by Ghana’s military rulers in the 1980s.

Those who’ve stuck around know they will have to leave Budumburam one day – refugees who accept Ghanaian citizenship are supposed to then move in to Ghanaian communities, Mr. Padi at the refugee board says. But when that will happen remains up in the air.

“The life I’m living in Budumburam camp, it’s not that good for me,” says Rufus Cole, who says he tried to get work in the capital Accra before coming back to Budumburam to attend school. Mr. Cole, who has spent most of his life in the camp, says he has no interest in repatriation.

“I don’t know much about Liberia,” he says.

Editor's note: The last name of the UNHCR officer was misspelled in the original version of this story.

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