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DRC: Thousands of refugees return home - UNHCR

NAIROBI, 4 October 2007 (IRIN) - At least 43,000 refugees returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between January and October, with another 310,000 still in neighbouring countries, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Most of the returnees went to the provinces of South Kivu in the east, Equateur in the northeast and Katanga in the south, UNHCR stated in a report detailing figures of returns to and from the DRC.

"The successful return of 43,000 Congolese refugees this year is the result of the hard work by UNHCR staff in the field; they often work under difficult conditions in isolated places like Baraka in North Kivu," Eusebe Hounsokou, the UNHCR representative to the DRC, said on 4 October from Kinshasa, the capital.

Had it not been for violence at the beginning of August in the town of Moba, in the southern Katanga province, "even more Congolese refugees would have come home", he added.

On 1 August, demonstrators assaulted and wounded four UN military observers and destroyed several offices belonging to the UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), protesting against what they said was a plan to repatriate a group of Congolese Tutsi refugees, known as Banyamulenge, who fled violence in the country in the late-1990s.

Jens Hesemann, the UNCHR external relations officer for the DRC, said the demonstration in Moba brought the repatriation operation to Katanga province to a standstill.

"After a mob attacked the UNHCR office, we had to temporarily relocate UNHCR staff out of Moba," he said. "All operations in Moba stopped. Meanwhile, staff have returned to Katanga and we are planning to restart with repatriation from Tanzania to Kalemie on 11 October."

He added that before repatriation to Moba could resume, the agency would need to carry out more sensitisation with civil society and leaders in the town.

"Despite all the country's troubles, in particular with the current humanitarian crisis in North Kivu, refugees can still return to areas which have remained relatively stable,” he said.

South Kivu, many areas in Equateur and Katanga have become major return destinations over the past two years, he said.

"In a country the size of western Europe, there are more than 1,500 sqkm of thick tropical forest without roads between the crisis in North Kivu and return areas in Equateur and Katanga, for instance," he said.

In its 3 October report, UNHCR stated that in addition to those who had returned, it hoped to facilitate the return of at least 23,000 more, bring the expected figure of returnees in 2007 to 66,000.

"The willingness of local authorities to accept and improve conditions on the ground for the returnees enhanced our repatriation efforts," Hounsokou said. "The government has stated that it encourages the return of all Congolese and this allows us to facilitate the return of many more people."

According to the UNHCR report, Tanzania has the highest number of Congolese refugees, with 104,048 people, followed by Zambia, with 56,337; Rwanda 45,780, the Republic of Congo 32,558; and Burundi 26,135.

The figure for Congolese refugees in Uganda is 27,797 but does not take into account the latest influx after fighting in August and September between the Congolese army and troops loyal to renegade army commander Gen Laurent Nkunda.

The UN agency also gave figures of refugees who left the DRC during the same period: 5,316 people left for Angola; 5,262 for Rwanda; 3,764 to Sudan; and 11 for Burundi.

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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