Successful reintegration of refugees in DRC's Equateur province
DONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 27 (UNHCR) - The reintegration of thousands of refugees around Dongo in Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) Equateur province is surpassing expectations and could encourage others to return from neighbouring Republic of Congo.
But despite the positive reintegration trends and the high level of returns, the lack of funding for UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme for Congolese refugees remains a significant problem that could ultimately affect returns planned for the second half of this year.
UNHCR seeks US$75 million this year, but by June it had received only US$14.4 million. "When we look at available resources, we take pride in what we have been able to achieve with very little," said Vito Trani, head of the UNHCR office in Dongo.
Dongo is located on the east bank of the Oubangui River, facing the Republic of Congo. Some 60,000 Congolese crossed the Oubangui and Congo rivers and sought sanctuary in riverside villages in the Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic (CAR) when civil war flared in their homeland in 1998.
The Congolese began returning home from CAR to northern parts of Equateur province in October 2004. In April the following year, refugees started returning from the Republic of Congo to Libenge, Gemena and the provincial capital, Mbandaka.
The launch of organized returns to Dongo was delayed several times due to insecurity, extortion and harassment of civilians by local militias, while refugees were deterred by the harsh social and economic conditions in the area.
The operation also faced serious logistical difficulties, aggravated by devastated roads and destroyed bridges. "We were also unable to acquire construction materials locally which contributed to the late start of the operation," said Trani.
For these reasons returns to Dongo only started in November 2005, with about 200 people being ferried across the Oubangui River each week by pirogue. To date, 7,000 have returned to Dongo. The number of returnees for the whole province is 15,000, or about a quarter of those who fled in 1998.
Going back home was one thing - whether their return was sustainable was another matter. But 88 percent of those who have returned to Dongo have access to their land, 82 percent have obtained official identity documents - which will enable them to vote in landmark elections slated for July - and 96 percent of their children born in refugee camps in Republic of Congo within the past five years have received birth certificates.
According to AIDES, a local non-governmental organisation involved in education and registration of school children, identity documents have been issued to 1,296 children, allowing their enrolment in new schools.
Inter-agency support has also been encouraging in a province where most people survive on agriculture and fishing. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization explains to returnees the benefits of joining farming and fisheries associations and provides new arrivals with agricultural tools and fishing equipment. The UN World Food Programme has supplied returnees with three months of food rations.
Aid has also gone towards improving health care services in areas with high returnee figures. Additional medical equipment has been provided and some health care centres have been rehabilitated to cope with the influx.
Local officials do have concerns about potable water supplies and worry about sufficient shelter for the refugees. Even so, a staggering 64 percent of returnees have constructed their own homes, while host communities have built shelters for vulnerable families.
Land disputes are being resolved through joint interventions with an inter-ministerial government body overseeing repatriation and reintegration. "More local tribunals to resolve property disputes are being considered at this stage," said Trani, noting that claimants currently had to travel long distances without public transport to get legal aid.
The overall security situation has notably improved. Receiving communities have been prepared to accept the returnees back, while local and foreign partners intervene together whenever incidents have been reported.
By David Nthengwe in Dongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo