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Q&A: A new chapter begins in Gabon for Congolese who fled fighting

News Stories, 30 September 2011

© Courtesy of Michel Biang
Michel Biang, Chief of Protocol, Gabon Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

LIBREVILLE, Gabon, September 30 (UNHCR) At the end of July, the government of Gabon announced that civilians who fled conflict in neighbouring Republic of the Congo in the late 1990s would cease to be recognized as refugees. It also pledged to help those who wished to go home and said it would offer a dignified and durable solution for those who wish to remain in the central African country. Michel Biang, head of protocol at the Gabon Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently discussed the issue with UNHCR External Relations Officer Céline Schmitt. He will be a member of the Gabon delegation that will attend next week's annual meeting in Geneva of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee. Excerpts from the interview:

Let's go back to the first influx in 1997. How did the government respond?

When thousands of men, women and children fled the war in the Republic of Congo in 1997, Gabon found itself facing an unprecedented historical situation. Our main preoccupation was hosting this massive flow of people, providing emergency shelter and ensuring their safety while preserving our own security. We also needed to ensure healthy coexistence between the asylum-seekers and the local population. We had to act quickly to address the humanitarian needs of these destitute, homeless people, not knowing how long the conflict would last.

The first thing we did was to welcome all the Congolese crossing our border by providing them with prima facie refugee status [literally refugee status "at first sight," as opposed to going through a refugee determination process].

We then decided not to make the refugees live in camps, but we allowed them freedom of movement in order to facilitate their social integration. We were driven by a tradition of hospitality, solidarity with our brother Congolese, and adhesion to our international commitments.

We also realized that, in consultation with UNHCR and other international and national partners, we needed to establish a legal framework and appropriate structures to manage the daily life of so many people. This was a major challenge, but I can say today that we found a pretty good way to deal with it [through legislation and the creation of a national commission for refugees].

At the end of July, the government announced that the Congolese refugees in Gabon would no longer have refugee status. What happens to them?

During the eighth and ninth rounds of tripartite consultations with UNHCR and the government of the Republic of Congo [in June 2010 and December last year respectively], it became clear to us that given the [improved] situation in Congo we could re-examine the status of refugees and envisage a cessation of their status. On this basis, we encouraged refugees to return home and gave those who did not want to repatriate the chance to acquire migrant status.

Aside from running a long awareness campaign about these options for refugees and asylum-seekers, the practical modalities needed for each option [repatriation or taking migrant status] were unrolled during the six months leading up to the deadline.

Today, the government is fully justified in declaring an end to refugee status. Before doing so, we had thought it wise to work with UNHCR to get everything ready for repatriation and the distribution of residence permits for Gabon.

Most of the refugees have opted to change their status to migrant. What happens next?

In consultation with UNHCR, we have set flexible eligibility conditions that are appreciated by everyone. And we have changed how we handle cases at our immigration counters. We have also sent out mobile teams to organize registration sessions [where refugees can ask for residence permits] in areas hosting refugees around the country. Most cases have already been dealt with, while others are being processed.

Tell us a bit more about your cooperation with UNHCR

Our collaboration with UNHCR is straightforward. We have an almost permanent dialogue. Whether it's defining the legal framework, implementation, the operational modalities or awareness campaigns, our discussions with UNHCR are regular and occur in a climate of openness, mutual respect and warmth.

What are the challenges and steps you face in this process?

Our main challenge is to drive forward a complex process that includes a mix of humanitarianism, social factors, international law and diplomacy.

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UNHCR country pages

Congo's river refugees

More than 100,000 Congolese refugees have crossed the Oubangui River in search of safety in neighbouring Republic of the Congo since inter-ethnic violence erupted in their home areas late last year. They fled from Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo after Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults in October on ethnic Munzayas over fishing and farming rights in the Dongo area. The tensions have spread to other parts of the province.

The majority of the displaced are camping in public buildings and some 100 sites along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River, including with host communities. The massive influx is stretching the meagre resources of the impoverished and remote region. Help is urgently needed for both the refugees and the host communities.

The relief operation is logistically complex and expensive because the region can only be reached by plane or boat. However, few boats are available and most are in need of repair. Fuel is expensive and difficult to procure.

Congo's river refugees

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Uganda: New Camp, New ArrivalsPlay video

Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

UNHCR struggles to reach isolated groups of refugees who fled inter-ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 100,000 are sheltering in neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

Tens of thousands of people have reportedly fled a wave of ethnic violence in the north-west of the embattled Democratic Republic of the Congo. The civilians have fled from Equateur province, crossing the Ubangi River and seeking shelter in Republic of the Congo.