UN refugee agency prepares for return of millions who fled Africa’s conflicts

1 March 2004
Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone's Largo camp

With millions of refugees from Africa’s conflicts facing their first chance in many years to return home where they would join millions more internally displaced by war, the United Nations refugee agency will bring together key African ministers, donor governments and other partners in Geneva next week to discuss the issues of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

“The March 8 meeting will raise the awareness of the international community and help them to understand the potential for return," said David Lambo, the Africa Bureau Director for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Noting that that several conflicts had recently ended while in other regions parties were now seriously sitting around the negotiating table, Mr. Lambo told a news conference last week that there were potentially more than 2 million African refugees who may want to return home over the next three to five years.

"We're trying to spread the message that donors must help the peace processes now underway on the continent to be sustainable,” he said. “One of the major problems is to break the cycle of repatriation and then of despair” caused when refugees finally make the step to return to their countries but then lack the economic and social support necessary to become self-sufficient.

The agency's intention behind the conference is to spotlight countries where Mr. Lambo said UNHCR is "cautiously optimistic" about the direction of the peace process and consolidation efforts. The agency has noted that Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan all fall into the list of States already welcoming back or on the verge of seeing exiles return from neighbouring countries.

Senior government officials from nearly 40 African countries in all are expected to be on hand together with key donor states and humanitarian and development actors. In an encouraging sign, UNHCR has received the first contributions to what could be its biggest repatriation operation in the near future – Sudan. The United States has donated $2.7 million while Canada contributed $380,000 in response to the agency's November 2003 appeal for $8.8 million to fund preparatory activities for the return of Sudanese refugees.


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