GUINEA-SIERRA LEONE: Refugee status ends but many opt to stay

Friday, September 19, 2008

Some 6,300 Sierra Leonean refugees who have been living in Guinea for 20 years will lose their refugee status as of 1 January 2009 according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), leaving them with a choice to stay legally in Guinea as Sierra Leonean citizens, or to return home.

"With the return of peace in their country [in 1999], UNHCR no longer sees any reason to leave Sierra Leonean refugees to benefit indefinitely from refugee status,” said Dillah Doumaye, the UNHCR’s top official in Conakry.

The decision applies to all 14,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in West Africa, according to Doumaye.

Staying on despite difficulties

Sierra Leonean refugees have enjoyed international refugee protection rights for two decades, and until 2004 those remaining in camps in Guinea’s forest regions were still receiving monthly food aid from the World Food Programme and non-governmental organisations, as well as medical attention.

Since 2004, refugees, most of them living in towns and cities, were still eligible to receive equipment to help them set up small businesses such as hairdressing, sewing, or gardening.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention’s protection, no refugee can be abused, arbitrarily arrested or forced to return to their country of origin if they should suffer persecution there.

But despite losing these privileges and enduring the difficulties of living in a country that is prone to civil unrest, widespread unemployment and endemic poverty according to the UN, most Sierra Leoneans are opting to remain in Guinea.

Refugee spokesman Mohamed Lamine Tarawally has lived in the capital Conakry since 1998. "I will opt to integrate and I am ready to assume all the consequences of the end of our status as refugees,” he said. “I prefer to die in Guinea, and I won't return to my country, where…the information that I receive from Sierra Leone makes me think the regime there has not completely changed.”

He continued, “I do not really know what my future holds here in Guinea, where we sometimes experience violence such as in the 2007 strikes, but I intend to stay here for a long time."

Tarawally says he makes his living by transporting rubbish from companies and individuals to open dumps around the capital.

Josephine Téah, mother of 10, lives in Coléah, a district of Conakry, and she too chooses to remain.

“There are days when we do not find to eat and we are afraid of the resurgence of organised crime in Guinea. Here I live miserably with my children, but I lost everything [in Sierra Leone]. My husband was brutally killed by the rebels. I prefer my current situation over returning to my country.”

To better prepare for her change in status she has started selling cakes in her neighbourhood for US$2.50 per day.

UNHCR support

Heads of households who wish to return to Sierra Leone will receive US$100 from the UNHCR and their children US$50, as well as help with transport, according to UNHCR. And for those who stay, the organisation will help them acquire Sierra Leonean citizenship papers and voter cards so they can participate in future elections.

According to UNHCR, Sierra Leoneans are among some 23,000 refugees who live in Guinea, with the others coming from mostly Liberia and Ivory Coast.