Angolan refugees choose repatriation or relocation as their camp in Zambia closes
LUSAKA, Zambia, October 19 (UNHCR) - Nangweshi Refugee Camp, established during the last throes of the Angolan civil war, is steadily emptying as the 15,000 residents opt for either repatriation or relocation to a less isolated settlement that offers a better prospect for agricultural self-sufficiency.
Since the operation began in early October, a total of 855 Angolan refugees have been flown home under the UN refugee agency's assisted voluntary repatriation programme and 367 have made the 350-kilometre journey to Mayukwayukwa settlement in another part of Zambia's Western Province. Nangweshi, opened in 2000, will close by the end of the year.
The movement to Mayukwayukwa, organised by UNHCR, the Zambian government and the International Organization for Migration, reflects the need to consolidate refugee facilities after four years of repatriation to Angola and plan for the future of those who do not want to go home. The operation is funded by $320,000 from Denmark.
Those relocating from Nangweshi assemble from various sections of the camp and are moved to the departure centre within the camp. The first relocation convoy on October 4 to Mayukwayukwa had 24 Angolan refugees and subsequent convoys were formed as needed.
On arrival in Mayukwayukwa, refugees are provided with land, food, farming implements and shelter materials such as poles, grass and plastic sheets that they use to erect thatched houses.
Nangweshi is located on the western banks of the Zambezi River, in Shang'ombo district. Established in January 2000 at the height of the last stage of the Angolan civil war, Nangweshi is one of Zambia's most recent refugee sites and at the start of the closure operation hosted some 15,000 Angolan refugees.
One reason for closing the camp was the remote location of Nangweshi, where the terrain and seasonal floods made it difficult to give humanitarian assistance.
UNHCR's assisted repatriation of some 64,000 Angolans from 2003 until the start of the Nangweshi closure also meant camps had to be consolidated to improve the efficiency of the operation. In 2004, another camp, Ukwimi, was closed after the repatriation of Angolan refugees from that site.
The other factor for closure was that refugees in the camp could not become self-sufficient because of limited land and the poor fertility of the sandy soil. In contrast, the old refugee settlements of Meheba and Mayukwayukwa provide the refugees with farm land.
The relocation to Mayukwayukwa presents the Nangweshi refugees who opt not to repatriate with the best prospects of self-reliance, especially after humanitarian assistance is eventually withdrawn as the Zambia refugee operation scales down in the coming years.
The closure of Nangweshi was preceded by intense information campaigns conducted by senior government, UNHCR and Angolan embassy personnel which gave the residents a choice of relocation to Mayukwayukwa or repatriation. UNHCR has provided repatriation to Angola by air and land, but the programme will conclude at the end of this December.
Rather than move to Mayukwayukwa, many Angolan refugees at Nangweshi are opting to go back to their home country. "We have seen more Angolan refugees who are moving to the departure centre for relocation, changing their minds and opting to repatriate to Angola," said Lawrence Mgbangson, UNHCR senior protection officer in Zambia.
As of October 17, a total of 1,902 refugees had repatriated by air and road from Zambia since August 15, when this year's voluntary repatriation exercise started.
Some of the refugees who do not want to relocate to Mayukwayukwa say they have been used to living in Nangweshi and are now opting to repatriate. "It is envisaged that more refugees from Nangweshi might opt for repatriation," said UNHCR acting representative, Vedasto Mwesiga.
Zambia hosts 155,000 refugees, including about 75,000 living in camps and the rest who have settled outside the camps. Most of the refugees originate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.
By Kelvin Shimo in Lusaka, Zambia