More must be done to help countries like Liberia avoid slipping back into chaos as they emerge from years of conflict, the head of the United Nations refugee agency warned on Tuesday.
UNCHR chief Antonio Guterres, marking World Refugee Day by welcoming back civilians who fled Liberia’s civil war, said millions uprooted by unrest around the world still faced a bleak future even once they returned home.
“Our experience shows that during the five years after a conflict is solved, half of the countries go back into conflict again,” Guterres told reporters near the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“Why? Because the foundations were not laid for a stable situation and for a sound economic development,” he said.
'No place like home'
The total number of refugees in the world — 8.4 million people — is at its lowest in more than a quarter of a century, according to U.N. figures. More than 6 million have returned home over the last four years.
But in Liberia, as in other post-conflict states, many refugees return to towns that have been torn to pieces, where schools and hospitals barely function, and where family members may be missing.
“I feel happy because there is no place like home,” said Momoh Kamara, 20, a high school student who fled Liberia to neighboring Sierra Leone when his home was attacked toward the end of Liberia’s war in 2002.
“The only thing I am disappointed about is that I don’t know where my family is. I don’t know where to start now. I am so worried I don’t know where to go,” he said after crossing the Mano River bridge that straddles the palm-forested border.
Images of child soldiers high on drugs shocked the world during Liberia’s conflict and other intertwined wars in West Africa.
War over, but future dim
Liberia, once home to one of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, is still without running water or electricity two years after the war ended and job prospects for legions of unemployed youths are dim.
Kamara was one of 125 people from eight refugee camps in Sierra Leone crossing back into Liberia on Tuesday.
Their names and baggage numbers on pink slips of paper stapled to U.N. t-shirts, the returnees are among 14,000 people to have come back to Liberia through Bo Waterside since October 2004, aided by UNCHR.
Guterres climbed into a canvas-covered white truck and sat with the returnees on their journey to a transit center in Sinje, a settlement of makeshift buildings with corrugated iron roofs.
Refugees 'never give up hope'
“If there is one common trait among the tens of millions of refugees that we ... have helped over the past 55 years, it’s the fact that despite losing everything, they never give up hope,” the former Portuguese prime minister said.
“The international community needs to devote much more attention to the transition between relief and development, to rebuilding societies which have been ripped apart by violence.”