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UN agency heads on unprecedented trip to the Great Lakes region

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UN agency heads on unprecedented trip to the Great Lakes region

24 February 2006

24 February 2006

GENEVA - The heads of three of the United Nations largest humanitarian agencies are embarking on their first joint mission to visit their common operations. On Saturday, they travel to the neglected Great Lakes region at Africa's heart to highlight the suffering of millions of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees.

Their unprecedented trip to Africa symbolizes the closer cooperation and coordination between the three agencies because of mutual, integrated issues in their mandates.

James Morris, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, Ann M. Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Burundi from 25 February to 2 March.

They will meet the presidents of the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, donors, UN agencies and partner non-governmental organisations and visit projects in the three countries.

The UN leaders urge the international community to pay more attention to the plight of people driven from their homes by attacks in eastern DRC and those who have chosen voluntarily to return home to DRC, Rwanda and Burundi after years of exile.

"The Great Lakes is at a crossroads in 2006 with national elections in DRC due before the end of June, following elections in Burundi in August last year. But for too many ordinary people, political progress must now be matched by substantial humanitarian assistance," the three agency heads said before their departure.

All three agencies are under-funded for their work in the Great Lakes region, which is just emerging from a tempest of conflicts that forced millions to flee in the 1990s.

On the trip, the heads of UN agencies seek to highlight the needs of vulnerable groups, particularly displaced people, raise donor involvement in emergency and post-conflict reconstruction and explore how to bridge the gap between emergency relief and development in the countries.

They will promote education as a way forward for the three countries to break out of the cycle of conflict and poverty, to enhance understanding of the challenges for the most vulnerable and to promote their agencies' commitment to end child hunger.

Mr. Morris and Ms.Veneman, who are on their second mission together, will then go to Kenya to meet the Kenyan president while Mr. Guterres travels on to Tanzania.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

In the DRC, the three UN leaders will arrive in Kinshasa and visit a feeding centre and project for street children in the suburbs before flying to the East to meet refugees returning from Tanzania at a transit centre in Baraka port in South Kivu Province and visiting WFP- and UNICEF-supported schools.

The DRC conflict has resulted in an estimated four million deaths since 1998. Some areas in the east are regularly terrorised by militia groups clashing with government troops and preying on civilians. Some 420,000 Congolese have sought refuge in nine neighbouring countries and Southern Africa and there are 200,000 refugees in DRC.

Many farmers cannot tend their fields because of insecurity. Civilians are the victims of attacks including rape, torture and random killings. Malnutrition rates in the East average between 10 percent and 20 percent. Some 1.6 million Congolese are internally displaced and are unable to adequately meet their most basic needs.

Recent fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people - mostly women and children in Katanga and North Kivu, requiring a continuous and flexible humanitarian response. But in 2005, more than 46,000 refugees and thousands more internally displaced returned home and are struggling to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

Rwanda and Burundi

After the DRC, the UN heads visit Rwanda and Burundi to meet the leaders of both countries, donors, UN agencies and NGOs and to visit a camp for Congolese refugees, a school, an HIV/AIDS project and a memorial to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In Rwanda, 25,000 refugees returned annually over the last three years. There are some 43,000 refugees in six camps and transit centres in Rwanda, where 90 percent of the population lives live in rural areas and many are dependent on rain-fed subsistence farming.

Like the DRC, Burundians are anxious to see the dividends of peace rather than risk a return to insecurity following political progress with the election of a new government and the end of a more than a decade of civil conflict that killed 300,000 people.

In Burundi, 2.2 million people, including refugees and returnees, need food aid in 2006 because of poor rains, crop disease and poverty. A total of 10,000 refugees from DRC and 20,000 recently-arrived Rwandans live in camps. Burundi also has some 140,000 IDPs.

Burundi's improving political situation and an agreement between the governments of Rwanda and Burundi with UNHCR have increased the voluntary return of refugees.