UNHCR warns Congolese refugees of rumours prompting premature mass return
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has cautioned Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries against believing rumours that may be driving them home prematurely to a region not yet ready for mass returns.
In recent months, UNHCR has noted a steady increase in the number of Congolese refugees returning on their own to war-ravaged areas in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Returnee numbers peaked in the first week of August, with more than 1,000 refugees going home to South Kivu province. In all, more than 11,500 have returned "spontaneously" to South Kivu since October last year, mostly from Tanzania and Burundi.
"According to information spreading in the camps, refugees will lose their Congolese nationality if they don't register as voters for the DRC elections," said Augustin, a Congolese refugee in Tanzania's Nyarugusu camp, who fled South Kivu in 1996. "Luckily we follow Radio Okapi regularly. In yesterday's evening programme on the elections, it turned out that the information was false."
General elections in the DRC are planned for 2006, and voter registration in some areas of spontaneous return, for example in South Kivu province, is expected to be completed in September this year.
During a recent interview with Radio Okapi, Franck Kamunga, a legal advisor at DRC's Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), assured refugees, "The fact that you do not return to participate in voter registration does not deprive you of your Congolese nationality."
Congolese Vice-Minister of Interior Patrick Mayombe added, "To the contrary, voting is a civil right and not an obligation."
While the CEI confirmed that the electoral card represents a provisional Congolese identity card, it said that returning refugees will receive other documentation asserting their nationality, no matter when they return.
Nonetheless, UNHCR's Representative in Kinshasa, Eusebe Hounsokou, told Radio Okapi, "We are worried that the rumours might provoke an unmanageable return movement."
He stressed, "It is logistically and in terms of absorption capacity not feasible to assist all 152,000 Congolese refugees in Tanzania with voluntary return before the completion of voter registration in South Kivu in September. In addition, there are many open questions about the security and human rights situation in return areas, despite considerable efforts by the government. We want to avoid any loss of life."
The complexity of the situation in the Kivus was reflected during a three-day meeting of the Technical Committee of the Tripartite Commission represented by UNHCR and the governments of Tanzania and DRC in Lubumbashi last week.
The refugee agency noted that despite the large number of Congolese refugees who have returned on their own since late last year, it was concerned about persisting problems of harassment by military elements and illegal occupation of returnees' houses. On their part, the Congolese delegation declared Fizi and Uvira, major areas of spontaneous return, to be secure. They also pledged to take all necessary efforts to further improve the security and human rights situation in these areas.
For now, UNHCR is not actively promoting repatriation to eastern DRC. But it is monitoring spontaneous returns, sending out refugee protection specialists and field officers from its Uvira and Baraka offices to talk to returnees and resolve problems together with the local authorities. The Congolese National Commission for Refugees has also deployed staff to return areas and monitors the five main entry points of returnees from Tanzania.
Two transit centres in Uvira and Baraka currently provide shelter for returnees upon arrival. Some 5,000 spontaneous returnees have already passed through these centres, where they receive a hot meal and some assistance items. Within South Kivu, UNHCR also provides onward transport to the returnees' areas of origin.
Augustin, the refugee in Tanzania's Nyarugusu camp, dismissed the effect of election-related rumours on refugee returns. "Refugees are simply tired of numerous years of camp life," he said. "Some people return spontaneously because the food rations have been reduced. Others test the ground in South Kivu to see if their families can return."
Recognising many refugees' desire to go home, last week's tripartite meeting in Lubumbashi made recommendations for an eventual organised repatriation to eastern DRC. Suggested procedures require returnees to present UNHCR voluntary repatriation forms to the Congolese authorities in areas of return. Based on the form, the Congolese authorities will supply provisional identity documentation to returnees.
These recommendations still have to be adopted by the Tripartite Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to meet in September. Once adopted, they will pave the way for gradual increases in return assistance to Congolese refugees in Tanzania who wish to come home. The hazardous boat ride across Lake Tanganyika, which spontaneous returnees now undertake, is one issue which calls for more intervention by UNHCR. The rehabilitation of community infrastructure in areas of return will also have to be stepped up to prevent a humanitarian crisis in these war-torn areas.
Equateur province in north-western DRC is the only part of the country to which UNHCR is facilitating returns. The agency has helped more than 4,300 Congolese refugees repatriate from the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo, bringing to about 17,000 the total number of returns since October 2004.
Another 377,510 Congolese refugees remain in nine asylum countries bordering the DRC: Angola (12,958), Burundi (30,000), Central African Republic (4,600), Republic of Congo (56,452), Rwanda (39,500), Sudan (1,500), Tanzania (152,000), Uganda (14,000) and Zambia (66,000).
By Jens Hesemann in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo