UNHCR chief Guterres urges rich countries to invest in Great Lakes region

High Commissioner António Guterres called for rich countries to invest in the economic development of Africa's Great Lakes region to prevent countries slipping back into chaos. Visiting Burundi, he met Burundians struggling to rebuild their lives, and Congolese refugees in the country's north-east.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and Burundian Minister of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender, Françoise Ngendahayo, meet returnees in the northern province of Muyinga. With 62,000 returns since 2002, Muyinga has received more Burundian returnees than any other province in the country.   © UNHCR/C.-L.Grayson

MUYINGA, Burundi, June 16 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Friday called for rich countries to invest in the economic development of Africa's Great Lakes region to prevent countries emerging from conflict there from slipping back into chaos.

After seeing off refugees returning from Tanzania to Burundi and Congo on Thursday, Guterres met Burundians struggling to rebuild their lives back in their own country, and Congolese still uprooted in a refugee camp in north-eastern Burundi on Friday.

Acknowledging the difficulties refugees in the Great Lakes face even after they go home, Guterres said: "Development would ensure that all communities have a better life and are able to give a better life to those who return."

Guterres, who is on the fourth day of a nine-day mission to Africa, came to Tanzania and Burundi to show European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel how European Union (EU) money is being used to support refugees, and to thank the European countries for their generous help. At the same time, he said wealthy nations can do more to bridge the gap between relief and economic development.

On his visit to Burundi, Guterres talked to a former refugee living in a desperately poor village near Muyinga in the north-eastern part of the country. The woman told the commissioner about the many needs of the returnees.

"We have problems with shelter, health care, we can't send our children to school," said the woman, as her baby slept in a sling on her back. "Elderly people don't have the strength to get to health centres, and they don't have money to pay for health care. Widows have special problems because they are forbidden by law from inheriting their dead husband's property.

"We [former refugees] have intelligence, we can farm, we can perform different trades, but unfortunately we don't have the means to undertake this work." A 15-year-old girl named Janine added her voice: "Because of the poverty of our parents, we can't go to school."

Guterres replied that hearing the concerns of the returnees would help UNHCR serve them better. "I know it's not easy to come home, but we will all do our best to help you - the [Burundian] government, the humanitarian agencies, and the European Union and other countries," the High Commissioner said.

At Gasorwe Refugee Camp, home to more than 8,800 mostly-Congolese refugees, Guterres told refugees he had enormous sympathy for their situation. A former Portuguese prime minister, Guterres said he had many close friends who became refugees, fleeing persecution in his own country when Portugal was ruled by dictator António Salazar.

"We share your agony," he told the Congolese refugees. At the same time, he said there were prospects for them to go home - voluntarily - in the near future. Guterres and Michel on Thursday evening saw off a ship taking 483 Congolese refugees home from Kigoma, in western Tanzania, across Lake Tanganyika to the South Kivu region of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

As DRC approaches democratic elections at the end of July, the international community must work for consolidation of peace and democracy in that country, and must do more to develop its economy, Guterres said. "Without a Congo at peace, Africa does not have a future," he told the Congolese refugees, who applauded loudly.

From Burundi, Guterres goes on to Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, where he will celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20.

By Kitty McKinsey in Muyinga, Burundi