UN begins return of Angolan refugees from DRC

Voluntary returns resume but UN refuge agency estimates that 113,000 Angolans remain in exile.

    The Angolan government said it welcomes all refugees who want to return home [UNHCR/G.Dubourthoumieu]

    The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has resumed a voluntary repatriation programme for tens of thousands of Angolan refugees after their displacement into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the civil war that ended in 2002.

    On Friday, 252 refugees were transported in the first convoy of the repatriation programme jointly organised by the UNHCR, host countries and the Angolan government.

    The UN agency estimates that 113,000 Angolans remain in exile as a result of 27-year conflict.

    "Their interest in returning is driving this programme. They say they feel safe to return, and that they have family back home they could rejoin and that their future lies in Angola"

    - Celine Schmitt, UNHCR

    The civil war left an estimated 500,000 refugees in countries including Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    About 57,000 Angolans returned home from the DRC between 2003 and 2007, but the programme was stopped due to logistical problems.

    Some 80,000 refugees were left behind in the country, many of them living in camps and dependent on aid.

    Celine Schmitt, external relations officer for the UNHCR in Kinshasa, told Al Jazeera that the programme had restarted following a survey with Angolan refugees still in the DRC. 

    "Last year we did a survey among the refugees and found that there were still around 80,000 Angolan refugees in the country and from our survey we found that 43,000 want to go back," she said.

    "Their interest in returning is driving this programme. They say they feel safe to return, and that they have family back home they could rejoin and that their future lies in Angola."

    'No deadline'


    A new agreement between the UNHCR and the two governments was signed in June and 20,000 refugees have so far signed up for help with returning, the UN agency said in a statement.

    "We are planning to send two convoys per week, which each convoy carrying a maximum of 290 returning refugees," Schmitt said.

    "There is no deadline for this project and it will continue until we are able to transport those who want to return home." 

    Friday's convoy of seven buses departed from the Congolese city of Kimpese and travelled 80km to cross the
    Angolan border.  

    "Today, my dream to go back home comes true," the UNHCR cited one of the Angolans as saying.
    The Angolan government has said it welcomes all refugees who want to return and will offer them conditions needed for their reintegration, including housing, schools and land for farming.

    'Weak response' 

    Joao Kussuma, the social reintegration minister, said last month that the government has had to pay repatriation logistics costs as "UNHCR's financial contribution, in the current international situation, has not met expectations given the weak response from the donor community".

    Schmitt said that there are financial and logistical obstacles, but the priority was to restart the project and get the refugees home.

    "We launched an appeal with the International Organisation for Migration for this operation and we still need more funds and of course this is one of the challenges since this type of transportation is extremely expensive," she said. 

    "Also repairing bridges and roads are ongoing and it will be difficult, now that the rainy season has begun, but we needed to start this project as soon as we could."

    The UN agency said it has received just $8m of its $21m appeal to help Angolan refugees return home.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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