DRC, Zambia and UNHCR sign agreement for Congolese refugee returns
LUSAKA, Zambia, November 28 (UNHCR) - The governments of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) signed a tripartite agreement here Tuesday with UNHCR that paves the way for the voluntary return home of 60,000 Congolese refugees.
"The time for the refugees to go back home and help in the reconstruction [of DRC] has come," said the DRC delegation chief, Ambassador Johnson Baelongandi Binana, who welcomed the accord and thanked Zambia for hosting tens of thousands of Congolese refugees over the years.
The two-day meeting here set up a tripartite commission, which will form the legal framework for the repatriation of refugees from Zambia. This is expected to begin next year once modalities have been put in place by a new technical working group. The tripartite commission will meet again in February.
Eusebe Hounsokou, UNHCR's representative in DRC, told the tripartite meeting that the refugee agency was setting up new offices in Moba and Pweto, in southern DRC's Katanga province. Transit centres were also being prepared in Katanga, where most Congolese refugees in Zambia originate from.
The security situation has improved considerably in Katanga this year and thousands of internally displaced people have returned to their homes in the province. At the same time, more than 10,000 refugees have returned to Katanga from Zambia by their own means. UNHCR estimates than an average 100 Congolese refugees per month spontaneously cross the border at Pweto.
Delegate leaders at the meeting in Lusaka hailed moves in DRC towards peace, including the recent presidential election won by Joseph Kabila. "We take note of the recent elections and the spirit of peace that has been ushered into DRC," said Zambian Home Affairs Permanent Secretary Peter Mumba. "Peace to DRC will mean peace for the entire region. We are therefore extremely happy for what is happening in DRC now as this will help refugees to return home."
But all sides also noted the challenges ahead. The UNHCR delegation said returnees would find little infrastructure in terms of primary health care, education and access to potable water. Surveys indicate that some 35,000 of the 60,000 Congolese refugees in Zambian camps want to go home as soon as possible. UNHCR has set a target of 20,000 assisted returns for 2007.
More than 80,000 Congolese refugees have repatriated since early last year, of whom some 38,000 were assisted by UNHCR. More than 410,000 Congolese refugees remain overseas, mainly in neighbouring countries.
UNHCR and DRC have signed similar repatriation agreements with the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Sudan over the past two years.
By Kelvin Shimo in Lusaka, Zambia