Refugees from Angola's Cabinda enclave cautious about returning

Refugee leaders who fled Angola's oil-rich enclave of Cabinda during the separatist conflict recently went back home on a "go-and-see" visit to assess whether conditions were suitable for them to return. But after a three-day trip, the leaders said they would be reluctant to return unless conditions improved.

The visiting refugee delegation discussing home conditions with residents of Miconge commune in Angola's Cabinda region.   © UNHCR/T.Vargas

LUANDA, Angola, March 7 (UNHCR) - Refugee leaders who fled Angola's oil-rich enclave of Cabinda during the long-running separatist conflict, recently went back home on a "go-and-see" visit to assess whether conditions were suitable for them to return. But after a three-day trip visiting three municipalities, leaders said they would be reluctant to come home unless conditions improved. Now, they've gone back to the Republic of Congo (Congo) to tell their fellow refugees what they saw.

The "go-and-see" visit by six refugee representatives in late February was the first of its kind to Cabinda, an oil-rich piece of Angolan territory separated from the rest of the country by a strip of Congolese territory and embroiled in a 27-year-long conflict between the government and separatist rebels.

Since the peace accords were signed in April 2002 ending Angola's own civil war, more than 310,000 Angolan refugees have returned home to the main territory from surrounding countries. But because of the continuing separatist conflict, only limited numbers have returned to Cabinda, leaving some 1,750 Angolan refugees from the enclave in Congo and a similar number in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many have lived outside Cabinda since the 1970s, when separatist troops sparked trouble in the enclave.

After visiting the potential return municipalities of Dingo, Buco Zau and Belize with staff of the UN refugee agency and high-ranking representatives of both governments, the refugee leaders from three communities in Congo said they were concerned about the massive presence of the Angolan military and lack of infrastructure. They also said more needed to be done before they would be willing to return home.

One refugee women noted that "all we saw were troops, troops, troops!" The authorities explained that troops were found in all countries and were there to establish and provide security for all citizens. The same refugee responded that the visiting group had concluded there was not yet peace. "If there was peace, we could come back tomorrow. But for now, we would have to go from village to village in search of peace, and we are just tired of that." Another refugee said they saw that "we can live in the towns but we still can't live in the villages."

Given the delicate security situation, UNHCR is not promoting repatriation to Cabinda yet, but the visit is seen as a first step towards reviewing the current policy. Cabinda's provincial government is keen to see refugees repatriate in larger numbers than previously, and briefed the refugee visitors on efforts for the socio-economic rehabilitation of the enclave and reiterated support for a larger repatriation operation with UNHCR assistance. The Cabinda authorities have already identified a site for a future reception centre some 40 km north of Cabinda Town, the provincial capital.

In 2002, some 7,000 refugees returned to Cabinda, many with UNHCR assistance. But the refugee agency does not organise or encourage group repatriation at this stage, and does not have a permanent presence in Cabinda. Earlier in 2001, UNHCR helped some 800 Angolans in Congo return home in a convoy.

  © UNHCR/Geographic Information and Mapping Unit

The recent visit by refugee representatives from Congo was organized after a recommendation by the Tripartite Commission for Repatriation, which includes the governments of Angola and Congo, plus UNHCR.

Currently some 133,000 Angolan refugees are still in exile in neighbouring countries, with nearly half of those expected to return back to Angola in 2005 - the last year UNHCR is organising a voluntary repatriation programme.

By Fernando Mendes and Melita H. Sunjic in Angola