Facing a dramatic increase in the number of Congolese returning on their own from camps in Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations refugee agency said today it was considering facilitating such returns by providing transportation although it still did not consider conditions suitable.
At present the refugees are paying captains of overloaded, barely seaworthy open wooden boats $10 per person for the 15-hour journey from Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika to beaches and ports on the Congolese side, such as Uvira and Baraka. The agency would still not encourage returns but would help those who insist on going home.
“The return of so many in recent days in such difficult circumstances is both an expression of faith in the nascent peace in a long-unstable region, and also a result of unfortunate cuts in assistance in the camps in Tanzania,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.
He said numbers had ballooned with the end of the school year in the camps in western Tanzania, with 200 returnees going back in just two days last week compared with previous monthly totals of between 370 and 1,100. Some 153,000 Congolese have fled to Tanzania since fighting erupted in South Kivu province in 1996.
Returning refugees say they waited for their children to end the school year and now want to get home and register them for schools in DRC. They also say that the present dry season, is a good time to rebuild their homes, most of which were destroyed in the fighting. Another factor is that they want to register to vote in upcoming national elections as part of the transition to full democracy in DRC after years of civil war.
“The increasing number of what we call spontaneous returns has opened the question within UNHCR of whether we should move to what is called facilitated return,” Mr. Redmond said.
“Under that description, we would still not view circumstances in the eastern DRC as conducive to return, and would not encourage refugees to leave their countries of asylum. But we would help those who insist on going back by running our own boats, ports and trucks. This issue is still under review.”