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Angolan peace-building efforts shift from repatriation to reintegration

Angolan peace-building efforts shift from repatriation to reintegration

Angolans across the country are working together to build a common future after the devastation of nearly three decades of war. Reflecting this, the work of UNHCR is shifting from repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Angolans who fled the war, to helping them reintegrate with those who stayed behind.
16 March 2006
Profits from a bakery at a women's centre in Cazombo, Angola are being used to help run the centre, ensuring it continues operating after UNHCR ends its involvement.

CAZOMBO, Angola, Mar 16 (UNHCR) - Early in the morning Angolan men and women file into a compound in this remote town. It is a mixed bunch - former refugees; those who had fled fighting to other parts of their country; and those who stuck it out through years of war. But they all share a common aim: to build a better future.

One group of men gather under a tarpaulin to get hands-on experience in repairing motorcycles; nearby another group stand at work benches learning carpentry. Inside a classroom in the women's centre which was the first structure built in the compound, men and women receive instruction in fish farming.

All are intent on acquiring skills that will ensure a livelihood as one of the poorest parts of one of the world's poorest countries emerges from nearly three decades of war. It is also a way to reintegrate those who fled to neighbouring countries back into a region that was torn first by a struggle against the former Portuguese colonial rulers and then by years of brutal civil war.

The training project in the remote province of eastern Angola, started by UNHCR with funds provided by Norway's Statoil oil company, reflects the shift in the priorities of the UN refugee agency this year. It is a step on from the voluntary repatriation of Angolan refugees over the previous three years which was just the first step in their return to normal life.

When a peace agreement was signed in 2002 to end the 27 years of war, there were an estimated 457,000 Angolans living as refugees outside the country's borders. Since then more than 360,000 are estimated to have come home, including 123,000 brought back by UNHCR, 89,000 who returned on their own but received UNHCR assistance on arrival, and a further 149,000 who repatriated without any UN help.

Now the focus is on reintegrating these people into Angola - and ensuring that the process will continue after UNHCR's role is over. In an era of shrinking donor interest in Angola that means UNHCR must target its resources carefully - using them to start projects that will become self-sufficient, provide a model for other organisations and attract funding from other sources.

"It's a challenge," said Enrique Valles, the UNHCR official in the capital Luanda who is in charge of planning sustainable reintegration. "We have to play a catalytic role and be creative, to establish strong links as much as possible with our partners."

UNHCR is a humanitarian agency providing legal protection to refugees, while prime responsibility inside the United Nations for development falls to other agencies. The end of the official repatriation last December signalled the start of a phasing-down operation that will see UNHCR's current offices in the interior of Angola closed by the end of 2007, leaving only the main office in Luanda.

But the development needs of Angola are vast. Last year's UN Human Development Report showed the country had improved - but it was still the 160th least-developed country of 177 that were monitored. Life expectancy is about 41 years, and a quarter of children do not see their fifth birthdays.

Angola is more fortunate than many countries emerging from war because it has a rapidly growing economy fed by rising oil and diamond exports, which are soon to be joined by natural gas production. UNHCR works closely with the government which has announced major infrastructure, health and education investments. The work will take years.

UNHCR, with the greatest presence on the ground of the UN agencies, has taken a lead in the international effort to assist the government through projects it hopes will be catalysts for involving other organisations. It has agreed with the government to spend 80 percent of this year's $12 million budget for Angola to support basic services, promote self-reliance and build up local capacity in the main areas where refugees have returned.

For example, the vocational training centre in Cazombo should eventually become self-sustaining, raising enough from students to cover the costs of the teachers and maintaining the facilities.

The Women's Empowerment Centre that hosts the training has attracted a group of women who are learning to make garments to sell and are baking bread every second day to fund the centre. They are currently accumulating the income in order to start similar women's centres in other areas.

UNHCR has teamed up with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to spur farm development in a country that has vast potential but huge tracts of abandoned land. Again, the work will have to continue long after the UN refugee agency has ended its initial reintegration programme.

Non-government organisations working with UNHCR have also provided Portuguese lessons to refugees who were born abroad and grew up speaking either French in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or English from their time in refugee camps in Zambia.

UNHCR's goal is to initiate what will be a lengthy process of reintegration.

However, in the battered towns where mines are still being cleared or in the villages that were deserted during the war, returning refugees see reintegration in concrete terms of the crops, houses, schools and clinics they need. They may be happy to back in their homeland, but they are also looking for continued support to ensure that they have a future. UNHCR knows its activities are just a start.

By Jack Redden in Cazombo, Angola