UNHCR starts repatriation of tens of thousands of Congolese

Briefing Notes, 11 May 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 11 May 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Over the past week, UNHCR has ferried hundreds of Congolese refugees back to a northern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the start of a voluntary repatriation programme from Republic of Congo. We plan to help 81,000 people return home to Equateur province by July next year.

UNHCR began the operation last Saturday, when a small pilot convoy of boats took 79 refugees from the town of Betou in north-east Republic of Congo to Dongo on the other side of the Oubangui River in the DRC. On Tuesday, a second convoy took a further 323 refugees from the Eboko site in ROC across the river to Dongo.

We plan to repatriate 246 refugees today from the village of Ikpengbele, near Betou, to the town of Libenge in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another convoy is scheduled to leave Ikpengbele for Libenge on Tuesday.

More than 85 per cent of the returnees have been women and children, and they were taken on to their areas of origin in Equateur. Under the repatriation programme, UNHCR hopes to assist 49,000 refugees return this year from ROC and 32,000 next year. Convoys will be organized every Tuesday and Friday. The refugee agency also plans to repatriate Congolese refugees from Central African Republic, but this programme is still being developed.

The operation for Republic of Congo is a major logistical challenge for UNHCR and its partners, with refugees dispersed in 106 remote sites along a 500-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River. Another problem is the low water level on the Oubangui, which makes navigation difficult. Heavy rain before Tuesday's convoy helped raise the water level and made the journey easier, our field staff report.

On arrival at transit centres in Equateur province, they are registered, attend sensitization sessions, are medically screened, fed and given a small cash grant and aid package, including plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and blankets.

The returnees on the two convoys were among an estimated 143,000 civilians who fled to neighbouring countries (123,000 to Republic of Congo and 20,000 to Central African Republic) to escape inter-ethnic clashes sparked by fishing and farming disputes in Equateur in late 2009 between the Enyele and Munzaya communities. Those crossing to the Republic of Congo sought shelter in remote riverside settlements.

A further 100,000 sought safety in other parts of Equateur, but most went back to their villages as the situation improved. Thousands of refugees have returned spontaneously from the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, but many people remaining in ROC come over to check their lands on a regular basis.

UNHCR has been helping the returnees, providing shelter kits and constructing more than 200 homes for the vulnerable. It has also been promoting reconciliation between the Enyele and Munzaya, who signed a non-aggression pact early last year.

As part of the reconciliation programme, a UNHCR-funded community radio station went on air last October.

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