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UN agency launches repatriation for Congolese refugees returning from Zambia

UN agency launches repatriation for Congolese refugees returning from Zambia

As some areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) recover from devastating civil war, the United Nations refugee agency has started to assist the return of Congolese who fled to Zambia, with the first group of 400 starting the long trek yesterday, the agency announced today.

“Yesterday, Thursday, we launched a three-year voluntary repatriation programme to help Congolese refugees in Zambia return home to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said at a press briefing in Geneva.

Ms. Pagonis said that there were approximately 61,000 Congolese in Zambia, and UNHCR, with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Governments concerned, hoped to help 20,000 of those return in 2007.

The initial convoy, carrying 414 refugees, drove 400 kilometres from Mwange Refugee Camp in the north of Zambia to the Zambian port of Mpulungu where they spent the night, Ms. Pagonis said. This evening, the refugees are scheduled to board the a chartered ferry and sail some 380 kilometres along Lake Tanganyika to dock at Kalemie in the Congo's Katanga province on Saturday morning.

At today’s briefing, Ms. Pagonis made it clear that refugees will only be transported to areas that meet the conditions set by UNHCR. They must be accessible by road, landmines must be cleared and basic services – schools, health clinics and potable water – must be available.

In areas of DRC not yet suitable for repatriation, UNHCR is working with the government and other partners to prepare them for returns, she said.

Returnees will spend the first days back in the DRC in a reception centre where they will get mine awareness training, HIV/AIDS information and any necessary medical assistance. Before leaving for their home areas, refugees are given food rations, blankets, soap, kitchen items, buckets and a construction kit to assist in rebuilding homes. Later in the year, they will get seeds and farming tools to help them become self-sufficient.

With support from the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC), the country last year held landmark presidential and parliamentary elections, the first in more than four decades.

Since 2004, some 103,000 Congolese refugees have returned home, but nearly 340,000 remain in neighbouring countries.