Uncertain future for return operation from Tanzania to Congo
BARAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 24 (UNHCR) - The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees to areas of South Kivu province from camps in western Tanzania is being threatened by food shortages and a lack of school places.
UNHCR has been ferrying refugees across Lake Tanganyika from the town of Kigoma to Baraka in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the past two years. But the future of the operation was plunged into uncertainty by the World Food Programme's (WFP) recent announcement that it did not have sufficient food stocks to meet the needs of some 16,000 refugees expected to return to South Kivu from Tanzania in the last four months of the year.
The UN food agency warned that UNHCR's repatriation programmes in the southern province of Katanga and the north-east province of Equateur would also be disrupted unless new food stocks were received.
In the past two weeks, Congolese refugees from camps in Tanzania have received only 50 percent of the food ration normally given to returnees on arrival in Baraka, a small Congolese town on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika.
These rations, including maize, beans, vegetable oil and salt, are meant to meet the needs of returnees for six weeks instead of the standard three months.
To avert a suspension of the operation, WFP and UNHCR are looking at the possibility of transferring food stocks from countries which host Congolese refugees, such as Tanzania and Zambia.
"If we do not receive more food, we will be forced to suspend repatriation from Tanzania. This will be a big blow to what has been a very successful operation," said Magatte Guisse, the head of UNHCR's office in Baraka.
Guisse said food support was crucial for the reintegration of returnees, many of whom have been in exile for nearly a decade. Most returnees in South Kivu take up farming, but they still need help to feed their families before the first harvest.
Meanwhile, education officials in South Kivu's Fizi district are struggling to cope with the deluge of pupils who enrolled in local schools at the beginning of the academic year on September 3.
By the end of the first week of term, Mama Yemo Primary School in Baraka had enrolled 1,280 pupils, although it only has a capacity for 990. On average, the school had 70 pupils per classroom instead of 55, the maximum allowed. At Sebele primary school, the six classes each had 130 pupils - more than twice the number allowed.
"Our classes are so crowded that teachers have no room to move about. Pupils are sitting right under the blackboard," said Sumaili Nyongolo, head teacher at Mama Yemo Primary School. The situation is the same in primary and secondary schools around the district, which is located in the south of the province.
Nyongolo said the problem had arisen because returnees were staying in the lowlands around Fizi and Baraka. "For security reasons, people prefer to stay here. They do not want to go to the highlands," he explained. Fighting between government forces and rebels has been reported from the highland area of Minembwa and other parts of South Kivu in recent months.
Some 16,000 refugees are expected to return to South Kivu's Fizi and Uvira districts in the last four months of the year, with about 6,400 of them children of school age. UNHCR's Guisse fears refugees in Tanzania may decide to delay their return if they fear that they cannot get their children into schools in Fizi.
The government and humanitarian agencies are looking for solutions. Where possible, schools will introduce double shifts. Efforts are also under way to identify donors to fund the construction of additional classrooms and new schools.
Since 2005, UNHCR has supported the rehabilitation of nine schools and seven health centres in return areas. The refugee agency is set to provide 1,400 desks and other school supplies to some of the schools.
The Kigoma-Baraka operation has aided the return of more than 54,000 Congolese refugees to South Kivu province since October 2005. Of this number, nearly 40,000 were assisted by UNHCR. More than 80 percent of the 114,000 Congolese refugees still in camps in Tanzania are expected to return to Fizi and Uvira.
By Millicent Mutuli in Baraka
Democratic Republic of the Congo