Although the long-standing refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa continued to ease last year with tens of thousands of people criss-crossing borders to get home, serious challenges still remain in what has become a complex two-way traffic, the United Nations says in its latest update.
The biggest UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operation in the region remains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the agency has helped more than 26,000 Congolese returnees as well as over 13,000 of the nearly 220,000 refugees sheltered there to go back to neighbouring countries.
“The sheer complexity of such operations in both directions must always be taken into consideration,” senior repatriation UNHCR officer Nsona Vela do Nascimento said. “Not only is it logistically difficult, but there is also an element of protection to every operation. We don't want to return people to areas where it is unsafe to do so.”
Safety concerns were paramount for many refugees trying to decide whether to return home. People like Tambwera Ramazani, repatriated last September from Tanzania to his village in DRC’s South Kivu province, were desperate to see their homes again after so long and decided the risks were worth it.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to return given that my country is still not totally safe and secure. But my health is failing, my wife has passed away, and I am now home to live the rest of my days in the country of my birth,” Mr. Ramazani said in Mesissi village.
Similar sentiments were heard all over the long-troubled Great Lakes region. “I feel very good about the return to Burundi,” said Shamba Ezekiel Mbogoyi in the town of Mutimbuzi after a dozen years in exile. “I had a country in Burundi, a country in the DRC, now all I want is some stability.”
UNHCR officers in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura and the DRC border town of Uvira were kept busy last year handling the two-way traffic. There are currently more than 23,000 Congolese refugees in Burundi and some 18,000 Burundians in DRC.
A draft tripartite repatriation agreement between UNHCR, Burundi and DRC is aims to formalize the repatriation process between the two. The agency has similar accord with the DRC on the one hand and Sudan, Zambia, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Tanzania on the other.
UNHCR also continues to help returnees rebuild their communities, distributing return kits and engaging in community reconstruction in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
“We want to ensure that our work not only benefits the returning refugees on both sides, but also that the entire community ultimately benefits,” said Lia Yip, UNHCR repatriation officer for Baraka, the Lake Tanganyika port which welcomes back returnees from Tanzania to South Kivu province.
“Reconstructing a school, or roads, or health facilities will have an immediate impact on the lives of the repatriates as well as those of the families who remained behind and are now assisting in supporting these newly arrived brothers, mothers, and friends.”
Two hospitals and eight primary health care centres are being rehabilitated in the province, with the work due to be completed by February. With more arrivals expected during the coming year, they will be sorely needed in a region plagued by malaria, tuberculosis and cholera.