UNHCR says conditions right for Congolese to go home from Zambia

News Stories, 19 September 2008

© UNHCR/N.Jayasinghe
Congolese refugees at Mwange Refugee Camp in Zambia listen with interest to presentations about conditions back at home in Katanga province.

LUSAKA, Zambia, September 19 (UNHCR) The UN Refugee Agency and the governments of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week intensified efforts to encourage the last 51,000 Congolese refugees in camps in northern Zambia that the time is right to go home.

"We encourage you to seriously consider voluntary repatriation while assistance is still available," James Lynch, UNHCR's Representative in Zambia, told refugees on a visit to the camps earlier this week. "We'll assist those that want to go back," he said, referring to food, farming tools and housing materials given to returnees.

Lynch led a team from the Zambian ministry of home affairs, the commissioner for refugees' office and the embassy of the DRC in Zambia, to Kala and Mwange refugee camps in northern Zambia, more than 1,000 kilometres from the capital, Lusaka.

In the past few weeks, UNHCR has used radio programmes, door-to-door information dissemination in the two camps and come-and-tell visits from DRC to promote repatriation. As a result, increasing numbers of refugees are expressing interest in returning home to Katanga province.

During the first week of October, UNHCR will organize "go-and-see" visits for refugees in the Zambia camps to check out conditions in the areas of DRC they fled in during DRC's civil war in 1999 and 2000.

While the decision to repatriate is purely voluntary, UNHCR's message is that the refugee agency considers conditions in many areas of DRC suitable for the return of refugees, since are accessible by road, cleared of landmines and offer security as well as basic services, including schools, health clinics and potable water.

"I think we meet the minimum conditions in areas where we are taking you," Mumpa Foloko Flo, First Secretary of the DRC embassy in Lusaka told the refugees in French. "You have to go back home to help in the reconstruction of your home through the skills you have acquired while in Zambia.

Refugees who are still hesitating expressed concerns about the quality of education available, farming opportunities and fighting still going on in parts of Congo.

Since voluntary repatriation began in 2007, 13,284 Congolese refugees have gone home from Zambia. UNHCR plans to be able to help some 30,000 Congolese refugees return home in the next year. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is facilitating transportation, while the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food to the returnees. Convoys will be suspended during the rainy season, which begins in October.

Zambia currently hosts about 87,000 refugees. Around 57,000 live in four camps in the Western, North Western, Northern and Luapula provinces, with nearly 30,000 living outside the camps. Congolese make up the majority of refugees, followed by Angolans and smaller numbers from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.

By Kelvin Shimo in Lusaka, Zambia