UN refugee agency to host meeting on Africa repatriations

News Stories, 13 February 2004

UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme for Angolans at Divuma camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. UNHCR/S.Hopper

GENEVA, Feb. 13 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency announced today it is calling a ministerial meeting on Africa next month, saying prolonged conflicts may soon be resolved resulting in the possible return of up to 2 million refugees to nine countries that require significant international assistance.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the "Dialogue on Voluntary repatriation and Sustainable Reintegration in Africa" to be held on March 8 in Geneva will bring together key African ministers and representatives, donor governments and other partners to discuss peace processes that are in progress.

"While we often cite our concerns about specific refugee problems in Africa, UNHCR believes there is now cause for cautious optimism about resolving some of the most protracted refugee and displacement situations on the continent," Redmond said.

He said that for the first time, the agency sees "multiple possibilities for the potential repatriation of up to 2 million refugees" some of which are already under way in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These countries account for more than 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

"Given the enormous potential for finding lasting solutions for so many people, UNHCR believes the international community needs to seize this opportunity and take a comprehensive regional approach toward ensuring repatriation and sustainable reintegration in Africa," Redmond said.

The Geneva-based director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau, David Lambo, has said that Africa needs long-term, sustainable development and attention to break the cycle of violence, poverty and despair.

Joining the ministers will be keynote speakers Poul Nielson, European Commissioner for Development for Development and Humanitarian Aid; Julia D. Joiner, Commissioner for Political Affairs, Commission of the African Union; and Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator of UNDP.

The March 8 meeting will be opened by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. Assistant High Commissioner for Refugee Kamel Morjane will close the proceedings. Regional side meetings on repatriation and reintegration operations in West and Central Africa and in East and Southern Africa will continue on the afternoon of March 9.

Actual and potential returns in Africa include:

Angola Following a peace agreement in April 2002, 3.7 million IDPs and refugees have returned, but formidable problems persist, including the presence of land mines, poor or non-existent physical infrastructure, lack of jobs and a fragile socio-economic situation. UNHCR hopes to return 145,000 refugees this year.

Sierra Leone Some 270,000 Sierra Leoneans have repatriated in the wake of a peace process in Sierra Leone, but development and national capacity-building are essential for peace to hold and allow full reintegration.

Liberia UNHCR has joined an inter-agency effort to prepare the ground for the eventual voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration of 320,000 Liberian refugees scattered around West Africa.

Sudan A peace accord is likely to be hammered out in southern Sudan by the end of the first quarter of 2004; UNHCR expects to help return in the first 18 months of peace in the country devastated by two decades of civil strife some 150,000 of the 600,000 refugees in the nearby countries.

Eritrea Over the past two years, 103,000 Eritreans have returned to Eritrea, where UNHCR has undertaken reintegration projects, but some 300,000 of them have remained in Sudan since the independence war began in the 1960s. UNHCR plans to give some impetus to the repatriation process.

Somalia Despite the repatriation of 467,000 Somali refugees to the north-east and north-west of the country over the past 12 years, Somalia remains a formidable challenge. A national reconciliation process is continuing but obstacles to peace are many and complex, and 400,000 Somali refugees remain around the world, many in dire conditions in nearby countries.

Burundi With the announcement by the last rebel holdout, FNL, that it is joining the peace process, the outlook looks bright for Burundi, where more than 80,000 Burundi refugees have returned. UNHCR expects 150,000 of the 600,000 Burundian refugees, many of them in Tanzania, will return this year.

Rwanda A decade after the genocide in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead, the country is encouraging several tens of thousands of Rwandans living in various countries in the region to return home. Last year, 17,982 Rwandan refugees repatriated.

Democratic Republic of the Congo UNHCR is preparing for the return of 350,000 Congolese refugees from neighbouring countries as the transitional government struggles to restore order in the vast country.

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