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Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - When it's time to go home

Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - When it's time to go home
Refugees (105, III - 1996)

1 September 1996
Refugees usually go back home when the fears that drove them into exile are gone. Often, a new kind of fear intervenes - that of returning to a ruined homeland and starting over again.

Refugees usually go back home when the fears that drove them into exile are gone. Often, a new kind of fear intervenes - that of returning to a ruined homeland and starting over again.

When peace has returned and the fears that drove refugees into exile are gone, no one needs to tell them it is time to go home. Many of them do - on their own. But some refuse to return even though security concerns may no longer be so apparent. Often, it is because they now have a new kind of fear - that of going back to a ruined homeland and starting over again with very little. This is what most of the Somali refugees still in Ethiopia fear most. UNHCR is helping them overcome these apprehensions.

In early August, 10 Somali refugee representatives from three camps in eastern Ethiopia - Hartisheik, Teferi Ber and Darwanaji - went on a 10-day visit to north-west Somalia to find out for themselves what many of their compatriots already know: that order seems to have been restored in several areas, especially in Boroma region. Some Somali refugees in Ethiopia regularly visit their hometowns, traveling on buses or on foot on roads that are regarded as safe.

"They found that the security situation is not an obstacle to repatriation, especially in the regions west of Hargeisa," said Tariq Muftic, UNHCR's repatriation officer in Jijiga, who accompanied the 10 refugees on their visit. But he conceded that the region needs assistance to rebuild the war-devastated infrastructure and all the areas visited are still in need of further rehabilitation. Moreover, they will need assistance in food, water, health and education services. "In many villages, the houses have been blown away and they need plastic sheeting and other building materials when they go back."

UNHCR has spent $13.8 million on rehabilitation and integration projects in north-west Somalia since 1992, constructing and repairing schools, water facilities and hospitals. Over a third of that amount was spent on clearing land mines in potential returnee sites. In its operations worldwide, whenever UNHCR sees an opportunity for repatriation, it invests in the short-term development of such areas so as to accelerate the repatriation of refugees.

Large numbers of the 1.7 million Mozambican refugees in six border countries began returning home spontaneously after a peace agreement was signed in October 1992 to end 16 years of civil war. To further accelerate the returns, UNHCR decided to distribute food in known returnee sites in Mozambique, instead of the camps in the asylum countries. To help the refugees become self-sufficient, UNHCR distributed agricultural seeds and tools to the Mozambican returnees and repaired infrastructure. About 1.3 million Mozambican refugees returned spontaneously from the asylum countries, mainly from Malawi. UNHCR helped bring the remaining 400,000 refugees home by train, bus, ship and plane. The repatriation programme for Mozambique was the biggest UNHCR has so far undertaken in Africa and was completed ahead of schedule.

UNHCR has been planning a repatriation operation for more than 300,000 Angolan refugees since the signing of a November 1994 peace accord that ended 20 years of civil war. Some 24,000 Angolans have returned spontaneously, but because of the slow pace of the peace process, UNHCR has been unable to organize returns from the asylum countries, planned to begin this year.

In central Africa, a regional conference in February 1995 agreed that voluntary repatriation is the only viable solution to the refugee crisis in the region. Countries of asylum and countries of origin agreed to create conditions that would accelerate the return of some 1.7 million Rwandan refugees. Large-scale repatriation has not happened because of problems in the asylum countries and in Rwanda. In the camps, UNHCR shows videos about life back home in an attempt to counter misinformation by extremist forces blocking repatriation. In Rwanda, while the government has encouraged repatriation, it still has to improve its justice system to build up confidence in the camps. In the meantime, UNHCR has been helping the Rwandan government build shelters for the returnees and repairing schools, clinics and water sources. It is also organizing visits by refugees to Rwanda - a measure similar to that undertaken in the camps in eastern Ethiopia to promote voluntary repatriation.

UNHCR made several plans to repatriate the Somali refugees in Ethiopia, beginning in 1992, but these were repeatedly frustrated by outbreaks of violence in north-west Somalia. For example, in 1994, a pilot project for the return of 10,000 refugees was drawn up, but a new round of fighting broke out in north-west Somalia and torpedoed the project. Instead of repatriating refugees, a new influx of 90,000 Somalis swept into eastern Ethiopia.

Since January 1995, after order returned in north-west Somalia, UNHCR again looked at repatriation. The plan now is to give the returnees the necessary transportation back to Somalia and to provide them with reintegration assistance packages such as blankets, jerrycans and a supply of food for approximately nine months.

UNHCR has issued an appeal for $12.6 million for the repatriation and integration this year of 10,000 Somali refugees from Ethiopia, 35,000 from Kenya and 1,000 from Djibouti. The amount also covers continuing programmes to help refugees who had returned earlier to Somalia. During their trip to north-west Somalia in August, the 10 refugee representatives were assured by local officials that they could return without preconditions and would be welcomed. They were told that their return would encourage donors to help the region with financial aid. One local official scolded the refugees for depending on handouts.

"You used to be hardworking and now you have been reduced to begging. Now you do not even know how to fetch water. You have been used to having everything delivered to your doorstep," one local governor said. "Life is hard and resources are few, but let's share what we have and build our country together."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)