- Great difficulties meat a three-year operation to repatriate some 58,000 refugees from Congo Brazzaville to Congo Kinshasa, which starts later this month. Roads in the region are little more than rough tracks, sudden torrential downpours are common and it can take up to ten hours to travel only 100 kilometres. Some of the journey will be on foot.
The large repatriation operation was announced today by Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman of the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) in Geneva. Ms Pagonis emphasised that the voluntary repatriation scheme would present the UN agency with some of the largest logistical challenges ever experienced. The northern border area between the two Congos is covered with rainforest, cut by large rivers and swamps and has virtually no roads.
- The logistics of this repatriation movement are amongst the most difficult we have faced anywhere, said Ms Pagonis. However, UNHCR already had organised several modes of transport – including boats to cross the Ubangui River that marks the border between the two Congos and trucks to get through thick forests. "Frequently, the last stage of the journey will be on foot," she added.
The UN agency had some experience in coping with this difficult terrain. "Since last year, we have helped to repatriate some 2,000 refugees from the Central African Republic to Equateur" in Congo Kinshasa, Ms Pagonis said. Equateur province is also the destination of the refugees still residing in Congo Brazzaville, waiting to be repatriated.
The large operation is to start later this month. In agreement with the Brazzaville and Kinshasa governments, UNHCR plans to return some 58,000 refugees to Congo Kinshasa's Equateur province in a three-year voluntary repatriation. The operation is scheduled to last through 2007 due to the logistic challenges.
According to Ms Pagonis, there are currently some 60,000 refugees from Congo Kinshasa in nearby Congo Brazzaville. Most of them fled in the mid to late 1990s, as there was widespread fighting in Congo Kinshasa's north-western Equateur province. Simultaneous warfare in Congo Brazzaville did not affect the country's northern part, which was the destination of most refugees from Equateur province.
Currently, Equateur province is the only region in Congo Kinshasa where UNHCR facilitates the return of refugees. For the time being, the situation in other parts of the vast country is not considered to be conducive to safe and durable returns of refugees, "but we are active in other parts of the country," Ms Pagonis said today.
In South Kivu - in Congo Kinshasa's troubled eastern part - UNHCR has started an assistance programme to help returnees coming home under their own initiative to an area devastated by years of conflict. Large numbers of Congolese from that region live in refugee camps in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and other neighbouring countries.
Funding of the complicated repatriation programmes was still problematic, Ms Pagonis added. In February 2005, the UN refugee agency had launched a US$ 15 million appeal to cover both the repatriation to Equateur Province and assistance to returnees in South Kivu. "So far, we've received nearly US$ 3.6 million, or 23 percent," she said.
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