UNHCR expresses concern over forced returns to Sudan
The UNHCR today expressed serious concern over reports that Sudanese refugees were being forced back into war-torn southern Sudan after Sudanese rebels invaded their settlements in the north-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sudanese rebels reportedly went through some of the refugee settlements sheltering 41,000 refugees near Dungu, DRC, on October 3, telling the refugees to go home and ransacking UNHCR's offices in Dungu and Doruma, where communications equipment and vehicles were stolen.
"The security of refugee camps must be respected and refugees themselves allowed to decide when it is safe to return home," Dennis McNamara, UNHCR's Director of refugee protection, told a gathering of the agency's Executive Committee of 53 governments.
UN staff in Yambio, southern Sudan, report that several thousand Sudanese have arrived in the town after leaving settlements in the DRC last weekend. Local community leaders fear that tens of thousands of Sudanese from the Dungu settlements may stream back into the area, which has so far avoided the worst of the famine besetting the region, but where the returnees lack food and other forms of assistance.
Mr. McNamara stated "The warring parties should observe the peaceful, civilian nature of the refugee settlements and no refugee should be coerced to repatriate to an uncertain future."
Aid workers from the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan are in Yambio evaluating the needs of the new arrivals and what they will require to reach their home areas in the vast country.
The invasion of Dungu's refugee settlements occurred the same day an Antonov aircraft flying over northern Uganda dropped nine bombs, two within 100 metres of UNHCR's Pakelle office, from where it oversees relief operations in Uganda's east Nile region. No UN staff was injured in Saturday night's bombing raid.
UNHCR cares for more than 60,000 Sudanese refugees in three areas of north-eastern Congo - Dungu, Aba and Birengi - but was forced to withdraw its staff from the region in August when fighting broke out between the Kinshasa government and rebellious forces in the east. The violence apparently provided an opportunity for Sudanese rebels to cross into the DRC and begin intimidating refugees.
More than 374,000 Sudanese have fled their homeland's sixteen year-old civil war to eight African countries, Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea and Egypt.