The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 101, August 2006



Pastoral visit of cardinal hamao to Liberia and Sierra Leone 




The aim of the visit of our Delegation was to learn about the situation of internally displaced persons in Liberia, the refugee situation, and the involvement of the local Church. Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao visited the dioceses of Monrovia and Gbarnga (4-11 December 2005), while Father F. Thoolen, SMA, in addition, visited the isolated diocese of Cape Palmas (2-19 December 2005). 

General introduction

Liberia is still recovering from brutal 14 years of civil conflicts, which ended in 2003. It has cost the lives of about 250,000 people, destroyed communities and forced the population repeatedly in a cycle of displacement and asylum. As a consequence, more than 700,000 Liberians became refugees in neighbouring countries, while alone in Monrovia as many as 500,000 were internally displaced. Two years after the civil conflict ended, Liberia still lacks pipe-borne running water, electricity and a proper road network, while the educational system and the health system are severely damaged. Beside the material impact, the conflict also had a huge psychological impact on the overall population who suffered or witnessed atrocities unimagined before the war. Their livelihood has been severely affected and all over completely destroyed houses are visible.   

The world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation, UNMIL, has deployed some 15,000 troops across Liberia; it disarmed 100,000 former combatants of which 15,000 were child soldiers. 

Recently the National Transitional Government of Liberia has been replaced by the administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. 

The situation of Internal Displaced People (IDPs)

Conversations took place with governmental and UN officials, the staff of church-based organisations and NGOs, while meetings with IDPs themselves were held during the visits to a number of camps and communities.

The circumstances under which IDPs are living in camps are dreadful. The accommodations are overcrowded and leaking, while the food supply provided by the World Food Programme, has been reduced to twelve hundred calories. This is one of the attempts to motivate people to return to their home region. 

The voluntary repatriation of IDPs is guided by the Liberia Repatriation, Resettlement and Reintegration Commission (LRRRC), a structure which is financed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but has hardly kept contact with them. The Liberian repatriation process is one of the fastest IDPs returns in history. Around 253,000 persons have been returned within 11 months in 2005. This return was foreseen by UNHCR to take place over a period of three years. However, it has to be noted that the repatriation is not voluntary, nor sustainable, while information concerning the return facilities turns out to be deceptive. 

These conditions motivate a number of recent repatriated IDPs to return to IDPs camps, since conditions are considered to be better at those places.

In addition it can be noted that food assistance to Liberia, while on its way by ship, had been redirected to Pakistan because of its earthquake with negative consequences for programmes in Liberia, and that UNHCR’s budget for 2006 foresaw a cut of 20%.  

The return of Liberian refugees

The repatriation of the 190,000 Liberian refugees, scattered across West Africa, to their rural villages and towns is ongoing. This became especially visible in the diocese of Cape Palmas, where Caritas, since a number of years, is actively involved and shows great concern for them. Some years ago the Bishop and the Clergy decided to return from refuge, which provided people with confidence so that they also returned, spontaneously and massively. However, it also meant that they did not receive any assistance from UNHCR. Caritas Cape Palmas organised, with assistance of Caritas Internationalis, programmes adapted, also concerning food, to their situation. 

At present voluntary return takes place, organized by UNHCR. However the return package is insufficient and its implementation is not adapted to the local situation, according to Caritas Cape Palmas who is as implementing partner for UNHCR responsible for the Harper Transit Camp. There are no farming tools in the package nor are provisions made to assist with shelter capacities, while its implementation seems to indicate a theoretical proposal, with hardly a relation to daily reality. This leads to difficult situations and hardships for returning refugees.  

Refugees from other countries in Liberia

Around 15,000 refugees are officially registered in Liberia, mainly from Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, though their actual numbers are higher. Processes are under way for Sierra Leoneans for some integration by ensuring that they have access to locally available services, (education, health, justice) and land for agriculture and housing purposes. Caritas Cape Palmas is UNHCR’s implementing partner for Zwedru Camp (6,000 refugees) and therefore responsible for its management. With private funds they assisted some 800 families with tools and seeds, while shelter was provided to150 families.  

The attitude of the Local Church

The three dioceses were severely affected by the civil conflict. Their structures were targeted and the priests and religious had to flee and became displaced or refugees for considerable periods and sometimes several times. The assistance of catechists was crucial to keep the communities together in IDP and refugee camps. 

The dioceses developed diocesan structures to deal with the pastoral needs in the present situation and are involved in activities concerning IDPs, refugees, skill training for civilians and combatants - which at the same time is a learning process to improve relations between civilians and former combatants, justice and peace and formation courses for the clergy to become involved in trauma healing. This all is supported by the Catholic Radio, Veritas. The sickness of Archbishop Michael Francis Kpakala is heavily felt during these crucial days for the future.

The whole country needs to deal with the decimated infra structure. However, one main problem the Church faces is the reconstruction of its educational and health service. Many times it was expressed that UN Institutions only provided funds to restore public schools. This is in sharp contrast with the description of the “UN - World Bank. Results Focused Transitional Framework”[1], and which seems to be needs based. Arguments used are that projects of the Church cannot be supported because of the separation between Church and State, the Church has sufficient money, and that fees are requested to attend school. 


The aim of the visit of Father Frans Thoolen, SMA, (19 November - 2 December 2005) was to learn about the post recovery situation of Sierra Leone, the refugee situation in Sierra Leone and the involvement of the local Church. The dioceses of Freetown, Makeni and Kenema were visited and they were also instrumental in indicating offices and activities to meet. 


The armed conflict broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991 and lasted for a decade. The conflict exploded into appalling brutality against civilians. Reports emerged of indiscriminate amputations, abductions of women and children, recruitment of children as combatants, rape, sexual slavery, cannibalism, gratuitous killings and deliberate destruction of villages and towns. The infrastructure was severely damaged as well as the economic well being of many individuals. At present the causes of this civil war are still present in society, because they were hardly dealt with. However, till 2010 the British Government has guaranteed the security in the country by their presence of an intervention force. 


This is a term used for people who were intentionally amputated. The highest level of amputations were those of arms, followed by ears, fingers and legs. Arm amputations were often referred to by the perpetrators as long sleeve (amputation below the wrist) or short sleeve (amputation above the elbow). Around 6,500 people were mutilated, of which around 1,600 survived this ordeal. The recommendations of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission propose measures to deal with the needs of victims in the following areas: health; pensions; education; skills training and micro credit. However these recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were hardly honoured by the government. Conversations with people amputated show a bleak picture of their reality. In addition they find themselves on their own, with an inability to care for their family and children while they notice that child soldiers and ex-combatants, which many times caused their mutilations, are assisted to integrate into society with skills training and education which for them and their children is not available. 

In the diocese of Freetown one Xaverian Father is involved in different forms of assistance to groups of them. 

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Sierra Leonean Refugees

An estimated 750,000 persons became internally displaced during the ten years of civil war and violence, most of whom returned to their places of origin. The National IDP Resettlement Programme had been officially completed in December 2002, while all IDP camps had been closed in early 2003. However thousands of people who had been displaced by the conflict continued to live without permanent shelter in Freetown and other urban centres. It appeared that most of these people, generally referred to as “homeless” or “squatters”, had received the reintegration package provided by the government, but chose to stay in the cities rather than return to their areas of origin. Long-term reintegration support for the returning population in the rural area is needed to ensure the reestablishment of livelihoods and the consolidation of peace. Similar observations apply for the 272,000 refugees who returned from abroad and for whom also the reintegration activities had come to and end. 

Voluntary repatriation of unaccompanied minors

In the diocese of Makeni an organised return project for about 380 - 450 Sierra Leonean teenagers is under way. The return packet is indeed pathetic and not adapted to the situation. Even the director of the Centre was trying to assist them through friends and acquaintances. From the UNHCR Deputy Representative Mr. Andrew Mayne it was learnt that this programme was carried under the responsibility of UNHCR Guinea which however did not have sufficient funding for such cases. 

Ex-combatants - child soldiers 

The national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme ended in December 2003. Former combatants (72,500) have been mobilized including 4750 women and 6787 children. Once disarmed, former combatants received cash or in-kind compensation, training, and job and income generating projects. The programme was effective in reaching out to male combatants while women and children were undeserved and were excluded from receiving benefits provided to ‘combatants’.  

Some local catholic organisations, like Caritas Makeni and Children Associated with War (CAW) Freetown have reached out to girls and young women to reintegrate them into society. 

Caritas Makeni developed a rehabilitation and reintegration project which includes counselling and health programmes, and alternative income generation. It recognizes the importance of traditions and customs in the trauma-healing process. A seventh group of 250 young women is now following the one-year programme which also developed foster care programmes for young mothers, enabling them to attend school while their children are tended. After settling down in society follow-up guidance is provided. 

CAW, in the Archdiocese of Freetown, deals with the physical, emotional and psycho social needs of child soldiers, unaccompanied minors, sexually abused girls and adolescent girl mothers. It also developed social and economic reintegration programmes. The programme lasts for half a year. More than 2,500 children passed through CAW. Family tracing and reintegration into their families and communities are considered to be crucial. 

Situation of Liberian Refugees

At present between 40,000 and 50,000 Liberian refugees stay in the country, mainly in the eastern part of Sierra Leone. They are living in a kind of ‘African settlement‘ and are allowed to work or to farm. Moreover, their movements are not restricted to these settlements.

This does not mean that they do not face difficulties. Certain food items are not received over longer periods. Hygienic materials were not distributed for more than six months due to delays in the harbour. Refugee students in a boarding school, with a beautiful dormitory constructed by Caritas, were not sufficiently provided with the necessities (exercise books, pens) to follow successfully the educational system. It turns out that each NGO is strictly working with its own scope and within its own programme leading to a lacking overall coordination for the well being of the refugees. The missing parts are noticed but not addressed. 

In addition cutbacks by UNHCR in the budget during the year lead to frictions between refugees and the implementation partners, since raised expectations could not longer be met. 

Voluntary repatriation to Liberia takes place, though NGOs are not able or willing, to describe under which circumstances nor what the content is of the return packet. It turns out that each returning refugee is provided with four months of food, irrespective the moment of return, and thus not respecting UNHCR own evaluation that returnees - when their likelihood depends on agricultural production - should receive sufficient food assistance to carry them through at least one agricultural cycle. Moreover, returning refugees are not informed whether infrastructure is in place, while the idea of the 4 Rs (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction) remains a wording from documents. Skill training is provided at many places by NGO’s, also Caritas, but does not prepare people sufficiently for a profession. This all raises questions about the sustainability of the voluntary repatriation programme.

Medical experiment

The inhabitants of Largo camps were provided with ‘sheets’, insecticide-treated sheeting, while the surrounding population received mosquito nets. Médecins Sans Frontières did not know why this distinction was made, but the duration of protection of these sheets last for at most one year. Afterwards they do not give any protection. 

Church and Refugees

Presence of the Church in refugee camps. 

In the diocese of Kenema a priest is in charge for refugees with somebody else part-time assisting. Regular liturgical celebrations take place in the camps. They stress the importance of the experiences of the catechist who stay in the refugee settlements.

Caritas is present in most refugee camps. They are the implementing partner of UNHCR in some settlements while in others they operate as an NGO, heavily involved with skill training. 

Guinea experience

To remain with the Sierra Leoneans fleeing to Guinea was obvious for the Church. Collectively they fled: priests, religious and the people. They stayed together in the camps with organised pastoral care. Church life and community building continued in these camps and even one ordination took place. At this moment there is still one priest with the remaining refugees in Guinea. The repatriation to Sierra Leone was organised by and accompanied by priests and religious.

The Bishop of Kenema would like to see a similar process for Liberian refugees. These experiences had led to the creation of basic ecclesial communities in the diocese of Kenema, while several religious congregations dedicated extra attention to refugees or had policies adapted into this direction.  

Approach of the Church

There does not exist a nationwide pastoral attitude of the Church of Sierra Leone or collaboration between the dioceses to deal with the problems people experienced during and after the violent conflict. Each diocese deals independently with the situation. The diocese of Freetown can be characterized by the passionate efforts of individual priests and religious geared towards the victims, however without any relation to one another, resulting in disconnected projects depending on the individual. Makeni diocese seems to stress formation for priests, lay people and people active in committees and projects. The idea behind is that people should take their destiny in their own hands. Radio Maria, the Pastoral Centre, and the Fatima Institute are working accordingly. The diocese of Kenema (at least the Diocesan Caritas) is actively involved in assisting refugees and has become financial dependent on outside funding with a risk to become project driven. 

Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A.

1UN - World Bank. Results Focused Transitional Framework. Revision, April 2005. p. 55. The three key outcomes for the education sector were: rehabilitation and revitalization of at least 25% of educational institutions, both public and private; improvement of the quality of basic education by implementing back-to-school type of programs and formulating and implementing a new policy in education that will serve Liberia for generations to come. Despite the limited implementation period, a number of achievements have been made.