UNHCR starts the fifth repatriation operation for Congolese refugees

Briefing Notes, 10 October 2006

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 10 October 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The first UNHCR convoy repatriating Congolese refugees from Burundi is scheduled to leave Gasorwe refugee camp in northern Burundi this morning. The convoy is taking back to Congo a group of some 300 refugees. The six-hour journey should end at Uvira, a border town in Congo's South Kivu province.

We began the repatriation of Congolese refugees in October 2004, first from the Central African Republic, then successively from the Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Sudan. So today's start of organized repatriation from Burundi marks the opening of the fifth return corridor to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

All of those returning on today's convoy are from the Rusizi Plains. The returnees are expected to spend the night at a transit centre set up by UNHCR in Uvira. Tomorrow (Wednesday), we will transport returnees to their homes. The Rusizi Plains are about 90 km from Uvira. Upon arrival, the returning refugees will receive basic assistance package including some household items, plastic sheeting, blankets and a three-month food ration. This assistance aims to address their immediate needs while they begin to rebuild.

Since July, more than 1,000 Congolese refugees in Burundi have registered for voluntary repatriation. A second convoy from Burundi is scheduled on 17 October, just before the brief suspension of all UNHCR cross-border repatriation movements to DRC from 21 October until 6 November due to the second round of DRC presidential elections scheduled for 29 October. This is a precautionary measure, already exercised by UNHCR during the first round of presidential elections. The convoys are expected to resume soon after, conditions allowing.

The majority of Congolese refugees in Burundi fled from the DRC's South Kivu province, mostly from the town of Uvira. Others came from the more distant provinces of Katanga and Maniema. Most of them fled to Burundi during the 1998 fighting between the government and rebel forces. Since then, some smaller groups have arrived sporadically in Burundi, fleeing long-term insecurity and instability in the DRC.

Of the estimated 24,500 Congolese refugees in Burundi, some 11,000 are living in Gasorwe and Gihinga refugee camps, while the rest are scattered in urban areas. In all, there are still more than 420,000 Congolese refugees in various countries of asylum.