After four decades, UNHCR foresees an end to the plight of refugees in Zambia
For the thousands of refugees who sought sanctuary in Zambia after fleeing wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, returning home is now a real possibility. Some, though, are choosing to stay. Whatever their decision, Zambia, home to UNHCR's oldest refugee camp in Africa, might soon be able to consider its days as a host to refugees as - for the moment at least - almost over.
LUSAKA, Zambia, April 5 (UNHCR) - With peace taking hold in neighbouring countries that once generated refugees, the UN refugee agency in Zambia is seizing the opportunity to find a solution for Angolans and Congolese who have been here facing an uncertain future for up to four decades.
There are now only 26,000 Angolans left in three UNHCR refugee camps in Zambia following a programme of voluntary repatriation that began after a 2002 peace agreement ended 27 years of war in their country. By the end of last year, UNHCR had helped more than 63,000 Angolans to return from Zambia and the total will rise again in 2006 with a final year of repatriation.
About 60,000 Congolese refugees, mainly in two refugee camps in northern Zambia, are waiting for the outcome of a national election in their homeland, expected in June. That could clear the way for UNHCR to begin voluntary repatriation back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as early as this year.
Overall, Zambia hosts an estimated 154,000 refugees, just under half of them living in the five UNHCR refugee camps and the rest scattered among the local population. Apart from the 60,000 from DRC, the rest are mostly from Angola.
Zambia has always been a generous host to refugees. Mayukwayukwa Camp, in the west of Zambia toward the border of Angola, has been hosting Angolan refugees since 1966, making it the oldest refugee camp in Africa.
If some of the remaining Angolans leave under the 2006 repatriation programme and the Congolese feel ready to go home by the end of next year, the focus can shift onto discussing a solution for the relatively few refugees who want to remain in Zambia. In practice, many of those who will not want to return are already integrated in all but a legal sense.
So, in addition to repatriation and returns, UNHCR and the government of Zambia have started a programme, known as the Zambia Initiative, to spur economic development in areas where refugees are living which will help both refugees and the local Zambian population. Ultimately this initiative will make it easier to integrate those - in some cases, the children or grandchildren of the original refugees - who are unlikely to ever repatriate.
The Zambia Initiative has reinforced this process. In the camps of Mayaweshiyaweshi and Nangweshi in the west and Maheba in the north-west, the schools that formerly served only refugees are now teaching both Angolan refugees and the local children. The patients lining up at the camp clinics are as likely to be local citizens as they are refugees.
The activities under the Zambia Initiative have been modest so far, designed more as a catalyst to attract other organisations into the process. UNHCR which does not do the development work delegated to other UN bodies, wants to ensure that refugee areas are incorporated into the national development plans, so that they help the process of finding a solution for remaining refugees.
"It is a holistic approach, helping both the host communities and the refugees," said Tamba Momoh Amara, the UNHCR officer pursuing durable solutions in Zambia. "The ultimate goal is to make both the refugees and the host communities self-sufficient, so those refugees who don't return can remain in the area and be self-sufficient."
The search is on for extra support to revitalize the Zambia Initiative, which began in 2004 but now faces a serious shortage of funds. The focus remains at present on the areas with Angolan refugees, where most who will return have already left. But UNHCR would also like to see the concept applied to the areas with Congolese refugees, easing the integration of any who might be left following the voluntary repatriation to DRC that is expected to take place over the next two years.
The third possibility is the "durable solutions" process - resettlement in a third country - used for those relatively few refugees who can neither repatriate nor safely stay in their country of asylum.
In March, the British Home Office minister for integration, Andy Burnham, visited one the Congolese refugee camps to personally see the departure of 56 refugees who were being resettled in the United Kingdom. Last year nearly 700 refugees were resettled to countries around the world, with the total expected to rise this year to 1,100.
"We see a real possibility to end the refugee situation that has existed in Zambia for years," said Ahmed Farah, the head of UNHCR's office in Zambia. "It will still take more time, but using all three of the durable solutions, there should be a solution for almost all the current refugees."
The history of wars in Africa means that many things could still go wrong. Old conflicts could resume or new ones start. Renewed political instability or just the difficult post-war living conditions could cause refugees to postpone any return. But conditions are more hopeful than in many years previously, with UNHCR expecting that it will need a smaller presence in Zambia in the coming years.
By Jack Redden in Lusaka, Zambia