Challenges remain, but long-standing Great Lakes refugee crisis eases

The long-standing refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region continued to ease last year with tens of thousands of people criss-crossing the region to get home, but serious challenges still remain.

A returnee is welcomed home by his family in South Kivu province. He was one of 37,000 Congolese returnees last year, including 26,000 repatriated with UNHCR help.   © UNHCR/A.Phalen

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 10 (UNHCR) - The long-standing refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region continued to ease last year with tens of thousands of people criss-crossing the region to get home, but serious challenges still remain.

At the heart of the region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remains the UNHCR's biggest Great Lakes operation. The refugee agency helped more than 26,000 of last year's almost 37,000 Congolese returnees go home. Slightly more than 47,200 people were repatriated to DRC in 2005, including some 14,000 assisted by UNHCR.

While below expectations, the figures for last year were welcome. The returnees surmounted difficulties such as poor roads, uncertainty surrounding the country's first ever democratic presidential election and eruptions of armed conflict.

DRC also hosts refugees - almost 220,000 from neighbouring countries. Some 30,000 of them went back home last year, including about 13,200 helped by UNHCR.

"The sheer complexity of such operations in both directions must always be taken into consideration," said Nsona Vela do Nascimento, the senior repatriation officer in UNHCR's Kinshasa office. "Not only is it logistically difficult, but there is also an element of protection to every operation. We don't want to return people to areas where it is unsafe to do so."

Safety concerns were paramount for many refugees trying to decide whether to return home. People like Tambwera Ramazani, repatriated last September from Tanzania to his village in DRC's South Kivu province, were desperate to see their homes again after so long and decided the risks were worth it.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to return given that my country is still not totally safe and secure. But my health is failing, my wife has passed away, and I am now home to live the rest of my days in the country of my birth," he said in Mesissi village.

Similar sentiments were heard all over the long-troubled Great Lakes region last year. "I feel very good about the return to Burundi," said Shamba Ezekiel Mbogoyi in the town of Mutimbuzi after a dozen years in exile. "I had a country in Burundi, a country in the DRC, now all I want is some stability."

UNHCR officers in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura and the DRC border town of Uvira were kept busy during the year handling two-way traffic of refugees between the two countries. There are currently more than 23,000 Congolese refugees in Burundi and some 18,000 Burundians in DRC.

A draft tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Burundi and DRC was completed in October and is now under consideration by the three parties. It is aimed at formalising the repatriation process between the neighbouring countries.

The UNHCR signed tripartite repatriation agreements last year with the DRC and Sudan in January, and with the DRC and Zambia in late October. Similar accords exists between the agency and DRC with the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Tanzania.

UNHCR also continued last year to take measures aimed at helping returnees rebuild their communities. The agency not only distributes return kits, but also engages in community reconstruction in partnership with the UN Development Programme.

"We want to ensure that our work not only benefits the returning refugees on both sides, but also that the entire community ultimately benefits," said Lia Yip, UNHCR repatriation officer for Baraka, the Lake Tanganyika port which welcomes back returnees from Tanzania to South Kivu province.

"Reconstructing a school, or roads, or health facilities will have an immediate impact on the lives of the repatriates as well as those of the families who remained behind and are now assisting in supporting these newly arrived brothers, mothers, and friends," Yip added.

Two hospitals and eight primary health care centres are being rehabilitated in the province, with the work due to be completed by February. With more arrivals expected during the coming year, they will be sorely needed in a region plagued by malaria, tuberculosis and cholera.

By Amber Phalen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo