STATEMENT DELIVERED BY THE DEPUTY MINISTER, MINISTRY OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS, MR SHEKA TARAWALIE, AT THE 64TH SESSION OF THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEETING OF UNHCR’S HIGH COMMISSIONER’S PROGRAMME HELD AT GENEVA, SWITZERLAND (30TH – 4TH OCTOBER 2013)
Madam Chair, Mr. High Commissioner, Distinguished Delegates from all corners of our world…
The Sierra Leone delegation joins in the congratulatory sentiments expressed by other delegates to the chairman for assiduously presiding over this meeting and High Commissioner Anthonio Gutherez for his comprehensive report on the organization’s activities. Sierra Leone aligns herself with the statement delivered yesterday by Mozambique on behalf of the African Group.
I bring felicitations from His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma (who coincidentally celebrates his birthday today October 2nd, and by your kind permission would use this platform to wish him a happy birthday) and re-affirm his government’s commitment in providing international protection for refugees and other persons of concern. Having implemented the ceased circumstances cessation clauses invoked for Liberian refugees in June 2012 in partnership with UNHCR, efforts are now being made to ensure the conclusion of cessation activities including exemption and the local integration process. A total of 416 exemption claims were processed and about 20 percent exempted. As a result, a high rate of appeal applications is foreseen.
Madam Chair, I am most heartened to talk about refugee/asylum issues as it hinges on personal experience. Just a little over six years ago, I was myself a refugee/asylum seeker in the UK. Even though at the time I sought asylum there was already a cessation of gun-battle hostilities, as the Sierra Leonean war had been officially declared over, there was a compelling reason for me as a journalist to resist a return home based on a hostile political environment for journalists at the time. And my past experience of imprisonment and death threats informed a justification of my asylum claims.
I am bringing this to try to understand why some Liberian refugees, despite the current comparatively stable environment in Liberia, have still refused to return home. The duty of the UNHCR, and indeed the Government of Sierra Leone, is to continue to engage this group without judging them on the general silence of guns, as government ensures fair Individual Refugee Status Determination processes while UNHCR handles refugee matters.
To this end, Government through the Ministry of Internal Affairs is looking at the possibility of providing residence and work permits on a gratis basis to 1,324 screened and locally-integrating Liberian refugees holding valid passports, even as we are resolved in providing a fairer and more efficient asylum system through the proposed amendment of the 2007 Refugee Protection Act.
On the aspect of accession and ratification of the 1954 and 1961 statelessness Conventions, we are, in collaboration with UNHCR, intensifying efforts in terms of training, awareness campaigns and lobbying of relevant stakeholders, particularly Parliamentarians, for the process to be fast-tracked.
However, the lack of financial support for the National Refugee Authority’s secretariat, one of the key administrative refugee machineries, has been a serious challenge delaying the completion of the exemption process.
In this regard, Madam Chair, though mindful of the organization’s high priorities on emerging and protracted conflicts, I would crave your continued financial, logistical and technical support to Sierra Leone in ensuring the sustainability of our young asylum infrastructure, as Government intends to assume full responsibility for refugee protection and conclusion of the cessation process in 2014.
We cannot be left alone, we should not be left on our own, at this time; especially with the evolving Syrian refugee problem, the main focus of our discussions at this meeting. Madam Chair, Sierra Leone has a historical record of having hosted refugees from Syria who have been integrated into our society for a period spanning over 100 years. The current conflict in that country has again ignited a wave of refugees from there. Inevitably, and naturally, Syrians are seeking refuge in Sierra Leone. As at now, we don’t have them in camps, as intelligence reports indicate that they have been staying with relatives and working in shops, factories, and homes. However, Government will soon embark on a mass registration of foreign nationals and introduce a biometric identification system which will identify and classify these Syrians as asylum seekers. This basically means UNHCR would have some more work to do in Sierra Leone.
Madam Chairman, let me conclude by acknowledging the excellent working relationship between my Government and UNHCR’s country office, evident in the devolution of the protection responsibilities of refugees to the relevant state institutions and the continued capacity-building of our staff.
As we walk along this path (black, white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Israeli, Arab, and all), tied together by our common humanity, Sierra Leone looks forward to the day when she will move from an observer status to a full member of this great organization.
I thank you and God bless us all.