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South Kivu returns to start October 15


South Kivu returns to start October 15

UNHCR and the Congolese and Tanzanian governments have agreed to facilitate refugee returns from Tanzania's camps to eastern DRC's South Kivu region starting next month. UNHCR has stressed that returns must be voluntary, gradual and only to safe areas.
12 September 2005
Happy reunions as UNHCR drops off Congolese returnees in villages south of Uvira in South Kivu. These returnees came back on their own but received UNHCR assistance upon their return. Facilitated returns will start officially on October 15.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 12 (UNHCR) - Congolese refugees in Tanzania's camps can start going home to South Kivu next month under a facilitated voluntary return operation agreed on by the two governments and the UN refugee agency.

The first of 152,284 Congolese refugees in three camps in Tanzania - Nyaragusu, Lugufu I and II - are scheduled to head back to South Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from October 15. The date and details of the return programme were finalised at a Tripartite Commission meeting between the two governments and UNHCR in Kinshasa late last week.

The decision comes at a time when thousands of Congolese refugees are returning by their own means to South Kivu. More than 800 such "spontaneous" returnees have been reported every week since August, and total returns since October last year number more than 14,000 - mostly from Tanzania, but also from Rwanda and Burundi.

Returnees say they are tired of life in camps and reduced food rations, and that they want to participate in the ongoing electoral process in the DRC.

UNHCR has emphasised that facilitated repatriation at this point can only be to the Uvira and Fizi territories of South Kivu, where the security situation has improved in recent months. "Facilitated return can only take place to those areas which are safe and accessible to humanitarian actors," said Ralf Gruenert, UNHCR's deputy representative of protection in the DRC.

The refugee agency has also stressed that repatriation from Tanzania must be gradual and cautioned against a rushed mass return.

"The capacities to receive returnees in their home areas without creating a humanitarian crisis and the logistical means for the actual movement put limits on the number of refugees we can repatriate every week," said Chrysantus Ache, UNHCR's representative in Tanzania. "You cannot expect that a large number of refugees will return in time for the voter registration in the DRC, therefore we need to de-link refugee repatriation from the electoral process."

Under the voluntary return agreement, UNHCR and its partner agencies will organise the transfer from Tanzania's camps towards Kigoma port. The refugee agency will inspect the safety of boats taking the refugees home across the vast Lake Tanganyika, and provide assistance once they reach one of the two transit centres in South Kivu. After receiving food and household items, returnees will be transported to their home areas from the transit centre - assistance UNHCR currently provides to spontaneous returnees.

Returns and reintegration are monitored by refugee protection specialists who travel to areas of return almost every day. This ensures that any problems the returnees face can be addressed by UNHCR staff or brought to the attention of the relevant authorities or the military, if necessary.

"Up to now, the spontaneous returnees' reintegration in their villages of origin has been advancing without major difficulties," said Charles Mballa, UNHCR's protection officer in Uvira. "We and our partners are supporting this process with initial reintegration activities like income generation projects."

At last week's tripartite commission meeting, the Congolese delegation assured that all return areas in South Kivu will have adequate security for repatriation by September 30. The Tanzanian delegation also pledged to provide all support necessary for the return process.

Both the governments and UNHCR appealed to international donors to provide the funds to make the return to South Kivu happen.

Between now and October 15, UNHCR must start an information campaign to provide details that will help refugees make an informed choice on whether or not to repatriate. This includes information on the security situation in the DRC, as well as the rights and procedures involved in repatriation - for example, luggage entitlement, livestock transfer, sensitisation on HIV/AIDS and landmines, identity documents upon return, and education formalities.

At the same time, Tanzania and UNHCR must complete the verification and registration of Congolese refugees in Tanzania's camps by the end of the year, collecting biodata that will help plan and fine tune the repatriation programme. Trial movements will also be conducted before the actual start of repatriation to evaluate the logistical capacities and assistance needs.

UNHCR estimates that the majority of the 152,284 Congolese refugees in Tanzania will opt to return home in the next two years.