afrol News, 5 December - Central African refugees in the neighbouring Congo Kinshasa (DRC) town of Zongo on Monday were delivered a message by their government that it now was safe to return home. Most refugees felt repatriation was premature.
The refugees received a visit by a group of about 20 Central African Republic (CAR) officials relaying calls made over the weekend by CAR President Angé-Felix Patassé for all civilian refugees in the DRC to repatriate to Bangui.
- The general impression among refugee representatives at the meeting was that it was premature to consider an immediate return, says Ron Redmond, spokesman of the UN refugees' agency UNHCR. The UNHCR is responsible for the safety of the CAR refugees in Zongo and local UNHCR officials supervised the meeting.
Spokesmen for the refugees said that while they are eager to return home to Bangui, none of the conditions that would allow them to do so have been met, according to reports from Zongo.
These conditions included the rehabilitation of their houses, which were destroyed or damaged during violence that followed an attempted coup in May and June; the payment of salary arrears, since most of the refugees are civil servants; the arrest and judgement of looters; and a guarantee for the refugees' safety once they are back home. At this stage, they said, none of these preconditions were met.
UNHCR spokesman Redmond yesterday supported the refugees' demands, referring to international law protecting refugees. "According to UNHCR protection standards, any repatriation movement has to be done on a voluntary basis only," Redmond noted.
- Furthermore, such movement would need to be organised within a legal framework involving the governments of the countries of asylum and origin, as well as UNHCR, said Redmond. "Such a framework should include security guarantees for the returnees and a monitoring capability for UNHCR to supervise the first months of reintegration in their country of origin."
In the meantime, UNHCR is still planning to move the refugees to a new site in Mole, 45 kilometres south of Zongo, in the coming days. The new camp at Mole will have an initial capacity of 10,000 people. Work on the new site is well advanced, with five transit hangars built, the drilling of wells underway, four classrooms ready and the road useable.
- Pending good security conditions, the transfer could begin in the near future, Redmond informed. "Refugees will receive a plot of land as well as wood and nails to build their own shelters."
According to UN numbers, a total of 23,000 Central African refugees are in Zongo following last May's troubles in the Central African Republic. Only some 1,000 former CAR soldiers have so far been repatriated. While near 10,000 CAR refugees live in the UNHCR camps outside Zongo, the additional 13,000 refugees remain in the local communities where they first settled.
Sources: Based on UNHCR and afrol archives