More than 200,000 Angolans say they want to go home this year
LUSAKA, Zambia, Feb 28 (UNHCR) - With more than 200,000 Angolan refugees keen to go home this year, the UN refugee agency is racing against time to start assisting returns as soon as May. But much more needs to be done with the limited funds it has received for the repatriation operation so far.
UNHCR arrived at the over-200,000 estimate of returns based on recent surveys among Angolan refugees in Zambia and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), two countries that together host the large majority of the 470,000 Angolan refugees in the region. Some of them have been in exile for over 40 years.
In Zambia, a survey completed last week indicates that up to 60 percent of an estimated 210,000 Angolan refugees living in Zambia would like to return home this year. The poll covered more than 14,000 families (representing over 50,000 individuals) in four refugee camps in Zambia.
The results of this survey varied sharply from camp to camp. In Meheba, north-western Zambia, 63 percent expressed a desire to repatriate this year, while in Nangweshi, in the south-west, only 13 percent concurred.
This discrepancy is due to the fact that most of the Angolan refugees in Nangweshi are former supporters of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola's Moxico province. Some remain cautious about political developments and the prospects of reintegration in post-war Angola. Others are waiting for the results of future elections.
The Zambian survey also covered Ukwimi refugee camp, which houses about 2,000 demobilised former UNITA combatants near the border with Mozambique. Some 90 percent of them want to go back.
In the DRC, informal estimates from the Bas-Congo region, one of the main refugee-hosting areas bordering northern Angola, indicate that up to 90 percent of Angolan refugees there are interested in returning. Those in the Katanga province of southern DRC are believed to be just as enthusiastic about going back to Angola.
However, Angolans in the DRC's Bandundu province are in less of a hurry to go home as many of them hail from Angola's Lunda Norte province that remains closed to humanitarian aid due to poor road conditions and the heavy presence of landmines. In addition, the province is poorly equipped in basic social infrastructure like schools, health facilities and water supply.
In all, the DRC hosts 192,000 Angolan refugees. So far, the more recent arrivals have proven to be the most eager to repatriate, citing a strong yearning for their homeland and a lack of assistance in the Congolese camps.
The UN refugee agency has been racing against time to make sure everything is in place for the repatriation operation to start in May or June. Based on its initial planning figure, UNHCR hopes to help 170,000 Angolan refugees home this year. But this number could change depending on the financial support received and conditions prevailing in Angola.
Eventually, nearly half a million Angolans driven from their country by 27 years of civil war could go back.
In preparation for the upcoming repatriation, UNHCR has stockpiled relief items in Lusaka, Zambia. These include 68,000 blankets, 34,000 kitchen sets and 68,000 jerry cans, as well as soap and 40,000 construction tool kits. More items are being purchased this week, including 40 medical kits, 43,000 sleeping mats, communications equipment and sanitary materials to cater for 50,000 families.
Transportation is another important consideration. "I am ready to go any time, but UNHCR has to provide us with transport," said a 35-year-old refugee living in Kisenge, Katanga province, DRC. "When we arrived years ago, some of us did not have the old people we now have. They can't walk the 50 or 100 km we covered when our families first fled. We also have some children who are too young to walk such distances. And we have many more possessions today that represent years of labour that we can't leave behind."
UNHCR's non-governmental partners in Zambia have been looking at transportation and itineraries for Angolan refugees who want to return home. Meanwhile, in the DRC's Bas-Congo region, the agency will soon organise a go-and-see visit for refugee representatives in order to build confidence among potential returnees.
However, the UNHCR office in Angola said that more information activities are needed before the repatriation can start in earnest. This is to ensure that the refugees are informed of the upcoming operation, of conditions at home and of their right to decide if they want to return or stay.
The refugee agency also cautioned that poor road conditions may hinder smooth repatriation, and that more de-mining and mine-awareness training for returnees must be conducted.
In mid-March, Zambia, the DRC and Namibia are scheduled to hold the second meetings of their respective tripartite commissions with Angola and UNHCR. These three separate commissions were established in late 2002 to set the conditions for repatriation. The upcoming meetings will delve into concrete aspects of the repatriation operation, including documentation, registration, itineraries, immigration and customs facilities, as well as assistance packages for returnees.
More than 90,000 Angolans have already returned home spontaneously since a cease-fire agreement was signed in April 2002. The number of spontaneous returns is now said to have dwindled in some of the provinces with the beginning of the rainy season and news of the upcoming repatriation operation.
Last year, UNHCR appealed for $34.5 million to pay for the repatriation and reintegration of Angolan refugees until the end of 2004. Out of the $29.5 million portion required for 2003, only $6.5 million has been received so far.