UNHCR extends opportunity for Angolan refugees in Zambia to go home

News Stories, 14 March 2006

© UNHCR/J.Redden
An Angolan boy pounding grain in Nangweshi refugee camp in Zambia.

NANGWESHI CAMP, Zambia, Mar 14 (UNHCR) A convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying officials from the government of Zambia and the UN refugee agency will grind down a rutted mud track on Wednesday to tell the Angolans in this isolated refugee camp that they will have a final chance this year to be assisted back to their homeland.

Surveys suggest that many of the people living here wish to return to Angola. The decision to extend the organised voluntary repatriation scheme from Zambia for an extra year it had formally ended last December was taken earlier this month by UNHCR and the governments of Angola and Zambia.

"There were still more than 26,000 Angolan refugees in camps in Zambia after last year's repatriation, so the Zambian government requested that we give them one more year of assisted repatriation which is likely to greatly reduce the remaining number," said Anthony Mogga, head of the UNHCR sub-office in western Zambia overseeing the camp.

"Zambia and UNHCR could then discuss local integration of the relatively small number still here, who probably do not want to return," Mogga said. While many refugees arrived this decade, some of the more than 5,000 Angolans in Mayukwayukwa, one of the smaller camps, date from the first stage of the Angolan war in 1966 and do not understand the Portuguese of their homeland.

The 27-year-long conflict started as an anti-colonial war against the Portuguese and then descended into a brutal civil war that caused a half million Angolans to flee their country and millions more to seek safety elsewhere inside Angola.

After a peace agreement was signed in 2002, refugees began to pour back to Angola especially from neighbouring Zambia and Democratic Republic of the Congo where most had fled even before UNHCR decided it was safe to begin organising a repatriation.

Since 2003, UNHCR has helped over 60,000 Angolans living in Zambia to return home. But repatriation last year was only about half the level expected from Zambia. However, an extra year of peace and rebuilding has strengthened confidence in the continuing stability of Angola and many of the remaining refugees, especially in Nangweshi, have relatives who have already repatriated.

UNHCR will have to await developments on funding the unplanned extension of the voluntary repatriation programme and the results of the survey of refugee intentions, before deciding exactly how to carry out the assistance programme. In 2005 both aircraft and road convoys were used in what is a region with only very basic infrastructure.

Nangweshi Camp will in any case close later this year as part of a process of eventually consolidating refugees in one location to ease the provision of services. Those residents who choose not to repatriate have the option to relocate to Mayukwayukwa camp.

"I don't want to move to Mayukwayukwa it's still Zambia," 29-year-old Fatima Chindekase told a UNHCR officer a few days ago. Her belief that it would be better to repatriate than to move to another refugee camp is widely shared amongst refugees. "Life was better in Angola because here it is a life of dependence," said the mother of four who had fled renewed fighting in Angola in 2002.

The Angolan refugees, who receive food, medical and educational assistance in camps, are aware that conditions in Angola, one of the least developed countries in the world, remain difficult. UNHCR provides a package of assistance to returnees, including food and non-food assistance to help them re-establish in Angola.

Those who have grown up in Zambia and know little of their homeland including the Portuguese language may stay in hopes of becoming fully integrated into their country of asylum. But for many the urge to return to their own country is strong.

"We will go this year when repatriation starts," said Florida Chinoya, a 37-year-old mother of six who arrived in Nangweshi Camp in 2000. She said she did not go last year because one of her daughters was pregnant.

"We will be starting from zero," she said. "But in Angola it will be better because it is my country and it is where I was born."

By Jack Redden in Nangweshi Camp, Zambia