UNHCR resumes repatriation of Congolese in Republic of Congo
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday resumed the cross-river repatriation of Congolese refugees in Republic of Congo (ROC) after suspending the operation due to low water levels.
A group of 254 people were ferried across the Oubangui River, which forms the natural border between ROC and Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in specially made river vessels. They were to be transported to their home villages in the remote and isolated region.
UNHCR launched the assisted repatriation programme from ROC in 2004, since when it has helped tens of thousands of Congolese refugees return to Equateur. The agency plans to phase out the programme in the middle of this year.
"Last year, the total number of refugee returnees [some 20,000] from Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic to this province more than doubled compared to the previous year," said Insa Seibou, who heads the UNHCR field office in the Equateur riverside town of Buburu.
The repatriation programme in Equateur has provided major logistical problems in a vast, forested area where infrastructure is minimal and road transport difficult and subject to weather conditions. The terrain is impassable during the rainy season and UNHCR relies heavily on river vessels that can each carry about 50 people.
UNHCR hopes that a peace pact signed earlier this week between the DRC government and rival armed groups will lead to stability in eastern DRC and encourage Congolese refugees and hundreds of thousands of displaced people nationwide to return home.
"We hope that prompt and effective measures will be taken to restore peace and stability in the country and to ensure the return in safety and dignity of more than 300,000 Congolese refugees in six countries of asylum and the 1.3 million internally displaced," said José Antonio Canhandula, UNHCR's Kinshasa-based deputy representative operations.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, a UNHCR-chartered vessel ferried 255 Congolese refugees across Lake Tanganyika to Baraka in DRC's South Kivu province from the Lugufu and Nyragusu refugee camps in Tanzania.
South Kivu province is the main area of return for Congolese refugees living in Tanzania. Since 2005, when the operation was launched, UNHCR has brought home almost 50,000 Congolese to the province.
UNHCR provides returnee families with a return kit that includes jerry cans, blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, plastic sheeting for shelter and house-building tools. They are also given food rations and agricultural assistance by other UN agencies.
But reintegration is a tough process and returnees to places like South Kivu and Equateur face many challenges because of the lack of infrastructure, basic services and employment opportunities. For example, only 10 percent of returnees have access to drinking water in Equateur's Buburu area, while young returnees in South Kivu face problems enrolling in school.
In major return areas, UNHCR strives to rehabilitate health centres and schools. It also supports income-generating activities like fishing, carpentry and small businesses such as bakeries and tailor shops. This year, UNHCR plans to support more than 40 health facilities.
Almost 150,000 Congolese refugees have returned to the DRC since 2004, most of them with UNHCR assistance. The agency is planning this year to organize and facilitate the return and reintegration of about 80,000 Congolese refugees. The major areas of return will be South Kivu, Katanga and Equateur provinces.
By Francesca Fontanini in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo