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Pledges made to intensify efforts to resolve refugee crisis in Great Lakes region

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Pledges made to intensify efforts to resolve refugee crisis in Great Lakes region

24 May 1996

Countries in the Great Lakes region agreed today to intensify efforts to promote the voluntary repatriation of some 2 million refugees in the area.

The decision was reached during the first meeting of a steering committee formed to oversee the implementation of a comprehensive plan of action on assistance to refugees, returnees and displaced persons in the Great Lakes region reached in Bujumbura in February 1995.

Attending the daylong meeting in Geneva, under the co-chairmanship of UNHCR and the Organization of African Unity, were representatives of Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Frustration was expressed over lack of progress in the programme for the mass return of refugees - the main recommendation of the 1995 Bujumbura conference.

"The lack of progress is a manifestation of the political factors working against repatriation," Sergio Vieira de Mello, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, said in his opening remarks. However, he said that a concerted international effort is emerging to address the problem from different angles.

"If the impasse continues, the situation in the region will deteriorate further," he said, warning that "enough damage has been done to the social and political structures in the region."

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is doing everything he can to resolve the central African problem, said U.N. Director Abdelkader Abbadi.

Daniel Antonio, OAU Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, cited intimidation in the refugee camps, concerns about security and intensified border violence as the main obstacles to repatriation. He said the OAU was deeply concerned at the deteriorating situation in Burundi.

The meeting supported efforts of Julius Nyerere, Africa's elder statesman and former Tanzanian president, in finding a durable solution to the Burundi conflict.

There are 1.7 million Rwandan refugees - 1 million in Zaire, 531,000 in Tanzania and 90,000 in Burundi. Burundi refugees total more than 200,000 - 110,000 in Zaire and 95,000 in Tanzania.

The meeting decided to step up a mass information campaign to counter misinformation and propaganda by elements blocking voluntary repatriation. Cross border visits by refugees and authorities concerned would be further encouraged. Measures also would be taken to accelerate the separation of intimidators in the camps.

Concern was expressed over the conflict in the eastern Zairian region of Masisi north of the refugee-hosting Kivu region. The conflict has prompted an influx of more than 10,000 people into Rwanda since late March.

The meeting also noted that despite pledges from the international community, assistance for rehabilitation and development and repair of environmental damage in asylum countries has either been insufficient or lacking.