UNHCR starts repatriating Namibian refugees in Botswana
KATIMA MULILO, Namibia, August 13 (UNHCR) - Spurred by signs of peace in their homeland, a first group of Namibian refugees in Botswana who had fled their country's Caprivi region four years ago started their journey home on Monday under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme.
On Monday, the first group of 267 Namibian refugees travelled more than 500 km in trucks and buses from Dukwi refugee camp in north-eastern Botswana, through Ngoma border crossing and into Namibia's Caprivi province, a strip of Namibian territory wedged between Botswana, Zambia and Angola.
The convoy, accompanied by an ambulance and vehicles from the UN refugee agency, spent the night at a sports field temporarily converted into a transit centre in Caprivi's provincial capital of Katima Mulilo. On Tuesday, other buses came to pick them up for their final destination - villages in an area called Omega, straddling the Kavango and Caprivi regions. The first group of returnees was expected to be home by Tuesday night.
The second group is scheduled to leave Dukwi on Wednesday, with further convoys planned for later in August.
A total of 853 people have signed up for repatriation so far, and UNHCR expects the first returns to encourage more to register before the end of August, when the pioneer group reaches home. Prior to this week's returns, there were 2,300 Namibians at Dukwi refugee camp, located 500 km north-east of Botswana's capital, Gaborone, near the border with Zimbabwe.
The majority of the returnees belong to the Barakwena (San) communities in western Caprivi. There are also members of the Mafwe tribe, a minority group in the region. Between 1998 and 2000, a total of 2,500 Namibians fled to Botswana, fearing for their safety because of their alleged support for the secessionist movement in Namibia.
The recent repatriation initiative was sparked by an improvement in peace and stability along the border of Namibia with Angola and in the Caprivi region as a whole. Many refugees have expressed a strong desire to return home, especially after a "go-and-see" visit by representatives of the refugee community in June.
"One young man who went on the 'go-and-see' visit was so enthusiastic, he wanted UNHCR to take him home immediately," recalled a staff member of the UN refugee agency in Namibia. "Local people also came to the transit centre at Katima, very curious and excited to find out about the newcomers."
But returnees will need a lot of help to reintegrate in Caprivi, where much of the infrastructure was destroyed and large portions of the population were displaced at the height of the fighting in 1999.
Upon arrival in Katima, the first group of returnees received food. A distribution of domestic items is planned later at their final destination, in particular to help them build their homes.
In areas of return, UNHCR is planning specific "quick impact" activities that will benefit both returnees and their receiving communities. These will include the building of water points, clinics and additional classrooms in primary schools. Mine-awareness and HIV/AIDS training, an adult literacy project and a tie-dye project are also on the cards.
The refugee agency will also continue an objective information campaign, including interviews with returnees on local radio, to make sure that refugees can make a free and informed choice about whether or not to return.
The voluntary returns are the result of a tripartite agreement signed in April between UNHCR and the governments of Namibia and Botswana. The agreement incorporates the internationally-recognised principles of refugee protection, including the establishment of a commission to promote repatriation, cross-border visits by refugee representatives, simplification of border procedures and access to returnees by UNHCR.
In particular, the agreement states that "the returnees ... shall not be subjected to any form of legal process, persecution, discrimination or punishment on account of their religion, ethnic origin or political affiliation, or for having left the country as refugees". It also stresses their "right to return to their former places of residence or to any other place of their choice within Namibia", and to "the recovery and/or restitution of land (or other) property which they may have lost or left behind following their flight to Botswana".