Some 155,000 Congolese who fled fighting over the past decade to camps in Tanzania will now have the opportunity to go home after the United Nations refugee agency officially launched a new repatriation operation by boat this week across Lake Tanganyika.
“Last year, refugees already started returning home on their own in unsafe boats – some 15,000 went home on their own – so we felt it prudent to help them by organizing proper transportation,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva today.
The organized repatriation was made possible by the signing of a Tripartite Agreement in September between UNHCR and the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Tanzania under which the agency has chartered the MV Mwongozo to ferry the refugees across the lake.
The Mwongozo, which means “leading the way” in Kiswahili, covers in just six hours a crossing that used to take 15 hours in the small boats the refugees used to charter themselves.
The operation was officially launched in Kigoma port on Wednesday night with a boatload of 484 Congolese after four trial convoys beginning last month took more than 1,500 refugees home from camps in north-western Tanzania.
On arrival Thursday morning in Baraka in DRC at a port reconstructed by UNHCR, the returnees were met by agency teams, given a hot meal and registered at the Baraka transit centre, where they stayed overnight before being helped back to their villages of origin.
During their stay at the transit centre, the refugees underwent training in mine and HIV/AIDS awareness. Upon arrival in their villages, they will receive a repatriation package including mattresses and kitchen sets, as well as farming implements and building tools.
The repatriations will continue with a maximum of 500 refugees sailing every Wednesday. UNHCR would like to increase the number of movements to two a week, but faces some logistical problems as well as a shortage of funds for the operation.