First group of Rwandan refugees set to return from Uganda

UNHCR is starting its voluntary repatriation operation from Uganda to Rwanda next week, kicking off what is expected to be one of the last major movements of Rwandan returnees in the region.

Rwandan refugees in Nakivale camp are the first to benefit from UNHCR's organised repatriation from Uganda.   © UNHCR/J.Stjernetelar

MBARARA, Uganda, Jan 16 (UNHCR) - A first group of Rwandan refugees in Uganda is set to go home next week under a voluntary return operation organised by the UN refugee agency that is expected to be one of the last major movements of Rwandan returnees in the region.

On Monday, 200 Rwandan refugees are scheduled to leave Nakivale camp in Uganda's south-western Mbarara district on the first UNHCR return convoy from Uganda. Five trucks will take them to the Gatuna border crossing, some 300 km away, and transport them to a transit facility close to the north-eastern Rwandan town of Byumba. Here, they will receive a reintegration package containing basic kitchen utensils, plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, jerry cans and soap.

Some of the returnees will be transported by UNHCR trucks from the transit centre to their home areas or to the nearest location. Other returnees will receive transport assistance on commercial vehicles.

Monday's returnees will be the first of 1,165 Rwandan refugees who have signed up for voluntary repatriation in three Ugandan camps - Nakivale, Oruchinga and Kyakka. Uganda hosts some 23,000 Rwandan refugees, one of the largest groups of exiles still remaining outside Rwanda.

Alice Litunya, who heads UNHCR's office in Mbarara, said she was confident more refugees would sign up for voluntary repatriation once returnees send word back to the Ugandan settlements that conditions in Rwanda are now safe. The refugee agency, together with Ugandan and Rwandan officials, had earlier visited the settlements to assure the refugees that in Rwanda, they will either get back their own land or will be allocated plots that can support their families.

A profile of the Rwandan refugee population in Uganda shows that the refugees are from all areas of Rwanda. The largest number is, however, from the eastern areas of Kibungo and Utarama, which borders the Akagera National Park in the north-east of the country. Other refugees are from Gisenyi and Ruhengeri (north-west), Gitarama (central) Kibuye (west), Gikongoro and Butare (south).

The start of the return operation from Uganda is the outcome of a tripartite agreement signed between the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, and UNHCR in July 2003.

In addition to Uganda, UNHCR and the Rwandan government have also signed agreements for the return of Rwandan refugees in various countries in Africa, among them Burundi, the Central African Republic, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

An estimated 2 million people fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide. UNHCR believes that as at mid-2003, there were still some 60,000 Rwandan refugees in the region.

By the end of 2003, 19,712 Rwandan refugees had returned home, the majority of them with UNHCR assistance. Of this number, some 14,981 Rwandan refugees were assisted by UNHCR to return home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with smaller numbers from Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia, Uganda and Republic of Congo.

To encourage returns, Zambian authorities and UNHCR plan to send a team consisting of Rwandan refugee leaders, senior Zambian government officials, parliamentarians and UNHCR staff on a go-and-see visit to Rwanda in early March. The planned visit is part of an information campaign aimed at encouraging the return of some 5,700 Rwandan refugees still in Zambia. An information campaign has also been launched in Tongogara camp in Zimbabwe, where there are more than 3,500 Rwandan refugees.

By the end of this year, "UNHCR would like to be in a position to say that it has done everything possible to facilitate and assist Rwandan refugees to go home," said Wairimu Karago, the agency's regional coordinator for the Great Lakes region.