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High Commissioner Guterres on World Refugee Day mission to Africa

Briefing notes

High Commissioner Guterres on World Refugee Day mission to Africa

13 June 2006

High Commissioner António Guterres left today on an eight-day mission to four African nations that will culminate in Liberia next week when he marks World Refugee Day with some of the hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and displaced now struggling to rebuild their country.

During the first stage of the mission in Tanzania and Burundi, Mr. Guterres will be joined by EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel to get a first-hand look at major refugee and repatriation operations in the Great Lakes region. The European Union's Humanitarian Aid Department has been crucial to UNHCR's work and Mr. Guterres and Mr. Michel want to underscore the need for sustained international involvement in helping nations emerging from conflict.

The theme of this year's World Refugee Day on June 20 is "hope." In both the Great Lakes region and in Liberia, hundreds of thousands of people are making the choice to return to their devastated homelands in the hope they can rebuild their lives. They join some 6 million other refugees worldwide who have made the same courageous decision to repatriate over the past four years, contributing to a 31 percent decline in global refugee numbers since 2001. While the huge numbers of refugees going home is indeed good news, we still have to worry about what happens to them once they get there. For many, rebuilding their lives at home can be even more of a struggle than life in a refugee camp, where they at least had access to basic services such as health care, primary education, shelter, food and clean water. So going home is one thing; being able to stay there is quite another.

Mr. Michel and Mr. Guterres will, for example, meet refugees in Tanzania who are going back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where they face enormous difficulties. In DRC's Equateur province, 90 percent of the population has no access to potable water. In South Kivu, 70 percent of return areas are accessible only on foot; 80 percent of schools no longer exist and the health care infrastructure is in a state of collapse. Parts of North Katanga have been deserted for years.

According to the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], half of all countries emerging from conflict slip back into violence within five years. One of our major challenges therefore is ensuring that returnees are not forced to flee again, a point that the High Commissioner and Mr. Michel are underscoring throughout their mission.

The High Commissioner arrives tonight in Dar es Salaam. Tomorrow morning, he will meet UNHCR staff before flying to Kigoma, where he and Mr. Michel will meet before meeting local officials and partner agencies. On Thursday, they will travel together from Kigoma to Kasulu and Mtabila refugee camp to meet Burundian refugees. In the afternoon, they will visit Kigoma Port to witness the departure of the MV Mwongozo, a repatriation vessel carrying hundreds of Congolese refugees across Lake Tanganyika home to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They will spend Friday and most of Saturday in Burundi, including visits to camps and transit centres on the Burundi-Tanzania border as well as meetings with senior government officials and partners before travelling to Nairobi on Saturday evening to conclude the joint mission.

Mr. Guterres flies to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, on Sunday and will hold meetings with various government officials on Monday before travelling to Monrovia, Liberia, in the evening. On World Refugee Day, Tuesday, June 20, the High Commissioner will spend the day in the Bo Waterside area near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border, meeting with returning refugees and displaced people as well as local residents. He is scheduled to welcome a repatriation convoy bringing Liberian refugees back from Sierra Leone, and will then accompany them on their journey home. An afternoon of World Refugee Day activities is scheduled in the town of Sinje, where UNHCR operates a transit centre for returnees. The High Commissioner returns to Geneva on June 22.