Lubbers discusses Congolese returns with President Kabila
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 21 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers is cutting short his 10-day mission to Africa, but not before holding an important meeting with Congolese President Joseph Kabila to discuss the impending return of hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees.
On Thursday, Lubbers concluded his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after meeting with President Kabila in Kinshasa. This was the first stop in what was initially a four-nation mission to Africa's Great Lakes region and Angola. Due to the horrific bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, Lubbers will now travel only to Angola before returning to Geneva on Sunday, August 23.
While in Kinshasa, the High Commissioner commended Congolese President Kabila for positive political developments in the DRC that have led to the installation of a transitional government and a return to peace in some parts of the country. Lubbers said that as a result of these significant political strides, UNHCR was on the verge of concluding a plan for the voluntary repatriation of more than 300,000 Congolese refugees in surrounding countries.
"The time has come to take action. We are very near to concluding a repatriation plan for your people," said Lubbers, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees mainly in Tanzania, Zambia and the Republic of Congo.
The Congolese refugees had fled during a five-year conflict in the DRC. A transitional government was formed in July this year and a power-sharing deal, including a restructuring of the army, is currently being implemented.
Speaking about the priorities of his transitional government, President Kabila said his government would focus on the demobilisation of soldiers and the unity of the Congolese people ahead of elections slated for 2005.
"Unification is my priority in order to allow those who have been chased by the war to come back," Kabila told Lubbers. "What would elections be if 300,000 people are not able to vote," he added in an apparent reference to Congolese refugees in surrounding countries.
The High Commissioner noted that it was important to have a well-managed repatriation programme that would be implemented over the next two years. He cautioned, however, that return could only be sustained through increased involvement of development agencies whose activities could help create opportunities for the Congolese people.
One of the first organised return movements of Congolese refugees is expected in the coming weeks from the Central African Republic (CAR) where 1,300 Congolese have registered to return home from Molangue camp, some 80 km from the CAR capital, Bangui.
In addition to a huge population in exile outside the country, the DRC also has an estimated two million internally displaced people (IDPs).
Responding to a query from President Kabila on possible UNHCR assistance to IDPs scattered throughout the vast country, Lubbers assured the Congolese leader that UNHCR would assist displaced communities particularly in situations where they were mixed with refugees. He noted that this policy had been implemented in Sierra Leone and was already being followed next door in Angola.
The High Commissioner pointed out that, in the DRC itself, UNHCR had given a one-time assistance worth $24,000 to Congolese nationals who had been displaced by ethnic fighting in the Bunia area of Ituri district early this year, in a bid to prevent them from crossing borders in search of assistance. Staff of the refugee agency had also helped with the registration of displaced people in the area.
Exiles and IDPs aside, the DRC is also host to more than 300,000 refugees from surrounding countries including Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Republic of Congo, and until recently, the Central African Republic.
Angolans are the largest refugee group in the DRC. Lubbers noted that peace in Angola had spurred the return of more than 130,000 Angolan refugees from the DRC and Zambia last year. In addition, nearly 15,000 Angolan refugees have been assisted home - more than half of them from the DRC - since UNHCR launched the voluntary return programme for Angolan refugees on June 20 this year.
Lubbers expressed regret that return prospects for more than 75,000 Sudanese refugees, the second largest refugee group in the DRC, remained uncertain. However, he voiced hope that the peace process currently underway in Kenya would soon bear fruit to enable Sudanese refugees to return home.
The UN refugee agency chief, who is visiting the DRC for the second time in two years, ended his Congo mission on Thursday afternoon and flew to the Angolan capital, Luanda. He was expected to meet with the Angolan President, José dos Santos, upon his arrival.
On Friday, the High Commissioner is scheduled to meet with several Angolan government ministers, donor representatives and non-governmental organisations. On Saturday, he will travel to returnee areas in Moxico province of eastern Angola before flying back to UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva on Sunday.