No repatriation agreements yet, but over 70,000 Angolan refugees have gone home, says UNHCR
LUANDA, Angola, November 15 (UNHCR) - More than 70,000 Angolan refugees are believed to have gone home spontaneously since February, just ahead of formal UNHCR-organised repatriation agreements that could see one of the biggest return movements in recent years.
Since the death of UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) leader Jonas Savimbi in February this year and the cease-fire that followed, an estimated over 70,000 Angolan refugees have returned home to embrace the fragile peace in their homeland. This figure is based on refugees officially registered or reported by local government authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on behalf of the UN refugee agency.
Over the same period, some 860,000 internally displaced Angolans are estimated to have gone back to their home areas.
Returns from neighbouring countries are mostly to four Angolan provinces near the borders with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), namely Moxico, Cuando Cubango, Uíge and Zaïre provinces. The pace of return increased in June and peaked with 17,000 registered returns in September alone.
October saw a surge in returns from the DRC, according to local authorities in the northern Angolan provinces of Uíge and Zaïre. Among the returnees interviewed in Mbanza Congo, Zaïre province, were families who had fled Angola as early as 1961, during the first stages of the independence war. Among them were many children who had been born in exile and had never seen their parents' homeland.
So far, the majority of returnees are former refugees from rural areas in the DRC's Bandundu and Kasaï provinces. Many reported harsh living conditions there, including a shortage of food even in the camps. Those who have returned to Angola, however, still face numerous obstacles to rebuilding their lives due to the lack of food, schools and medical facilities in their war-ravaged country.
Returns from Zambia picked up at the beginning of the year but seem to have slowed since full food rations in the Zambian camps were resumed in July. Although registered returns from the camps do not exceed 6,000, the authorities estimate that many more spontaneously settled Angolans have made the trip back home, bringing the total returns from Zambia to possibly 30,000.
To cope with the spontaneous returns, UNHCR has strengthened its presence in the north of Angola (Uíge and Zaïre provinces) and established a permanent presence in Luena, Luau, Cazombo and Lumbala N'Guimbo in the east (Moxico province). The refugee agency is relying on a network of NGOs that have been active in the areas of return, particularly in Uíge and Zaïre provinces, where UNHCR ran a special programme for internally displaced persons until last year.
UNHCR's partners are registering the returnees and providing them with housing in transit centres in Uíge and Zaïre provinces, as well as onward transportation to other municipalities. The most vulnerable families also receive domestic items, tools and seeds.
Longer-term support includes community-based assistance such as staff and equipment for clinics and rehabilitation of school buildings, as well as adult literacy and vocational training courses, reconciliation activities and awareness programmes on child protection and rights.
All these efforts should ensure basic conditions for returnees when UNHCR signs the formal tripartite agreements for repatriation to Angola, scheduled at the end of November. Based on existing agreements from previous repatriation attempts between Angola, UNHCR, and Zambia and Namibia respectively, these new deals will set out conditions for the new repatriation.
The government of Angola has repeatedly stated that its priority is the demobilisation and reintegration of 380,000 former UNITA combatants and their families, as well as the resettlement of up to 4 million internally displaced Angolans.
In January 2003, UNHCR will carry out a "repatriation test" from camps near Kimpese, in the DRC, to Zaïre province in Angola. However, full-fledged organised repatriation will only start after the rainy season ends in May/June 2003.
The repatriation could be one of the biggest in recent years, with more than 450,000 refugees living in the region - Zambia (211,000), the DRC (193,000), Namibia (24,500), the Republic of Congo (16,000) and South Africa (10,000). In addition, there are an estimated 50,000 Angolan refugees in countries outside the African continent.
In addition to the durable solution of repatriation, Zambia has agreed to consider naturalising Angolan refugees who were born on its soil or have been in Zambia for over 30 years, should they decide not to go home.
The war in Angola is one of the world's longest-running, deadliest and most neglected conflicts. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in 27 years of almost continuous fighting that broke out shortly after Angola became independent from Portugal in 1975. Several cease-fire agreements were negotiated over the years, but the one signed earlier this year has proven to be the most enduring so far.