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Lubbers opens international dialogue on Africa

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Lubbers opens international dialogue on Africa

8 March 2004

8 March 2004

GENEVA - Citing improved prospects for the return home of millions of long-time refugees, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers opened a conference on repatriation and reintegration in Africa today with a call for international support and solidarity in breaking the continent's cycle of violence, poverty and despair.

In opening remarks, Lubbers said he was optimistic that peace initiatives and conflict resolution efforts in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo could soon spur some of the biggest return movements in Africa in nearly a decade.

"The resolution of these conflicts could, over the next few years, lead to the voluntary repatriation of up to 2 million refugees from several African countries and the return of several million more displaced persons," Lubbers stressed.

Some 60 government delegations, including more than a dozen from Africa at ministerial level and several senior relief and development officials, are attending the UNHCR-sponsored Dialogue on Voluntary Repatriation and Sustainable Reintegration in Africa. The conference will be followed by a second day of sessions focusing on the nine African countries that are now involved in repatriation and reintegration or that could soon see the start of returns.

Keynote speakers on Monday morning included Poul Nielson, EC Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid; Sophie Asimenye Kalinde, Permanent Observer for the Commissioner of the Africa Union; and UN Development Programme Assistant Administrator Julia Taft. With ambassadors from key donor states, they will join the African government delegations to map out strategies for voluntary repatriation of refugees and sustainable reintegration and reconstruction.

Lubbers urged donor governments to work with African states to build on home-grown peace initiatives that now promised to end some of Africa's longest-running wars.

"We have a common responsibility to ensure that the seeds of peace and development which have been sown in Africa are given the opportunity to grow," Lubbers said.

"Given the enormous potential in Africa for resolving long-standing conflicts, consolidating peace and putting an end to protracted refugee and IDP situations, I believe now is the time for the international community to unite in lending its full support to this process."

Of crucial importance for UNHCR is the close cooperation of African states and relief and development institutions to ensure that the return of refugees and displaced persons is successful and sustainable.

UNHCR has frequently expressed concern over the lack of continued international attention to post-conflict societies once refugees have returned to their devastated homelands. Sustained support means refugees can go home and stay home. Aid agencies and governments must help break cycles of dependency through targeted development programmes that help communities absorb returnees.

More than 8 million refugees went back to African countries in the 10 years up to 2001, with more than half returning to Rwanda and Mozambique. While the pace has slowed, the more than 800,000 refugees who recently repatriated to Sierra Leone, Angola, Burundi, Rwanda and Eritrea are a sign that refugees are willing to go back despite the enormous challenges in their homelands.

Lubbers also told the states that peace processes must be strongly supported at all levels, including the need to offer new prospects for disarmed combatants.

"Efforts must be made to ensure the effectiveness of programmes aimed at the disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation of former combatants, including youths," he said.

He also warned that programmes to enhance self-reliance, improve education, health and other basic services were vital, as well as initiatives to promote gender equality and counter discrimination that has fed some of Africa's recent conflicts.

The High Commissioner also stressed the responsibilities of African leaders.

"Primary responsibility rests with the governments of the affected countries to ensure that the political, security, legal, social and economic conditions continue to develop in the right direction," he said.

Lubbers proposed that delegates consider establishment of a high-level, informal working group made up of a number of African states, other interested governments, UN agencies, the African Union and NGOs to follow up the recommendations of the meeting. The working group could help support countries in Africa with the management of the repatriation and reintegration process, with a particular focus on the rehabilitation and reconstruction aspects.