GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency has started repatriating tens of thousands of Congolese refugees from the Republic of Congo to Equateur Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UNHCR aims to help more than 81,000 people return home by July of next year.
The U.N. refugee agency says it has ferried more than 400 Congolese refugees back to northern Equateur Province in the DRC since Saturday. Spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the UNHCR plans to repatriate 246 more refugees on Friday. And this, he said, will be followed by another convoy scheduled to leave Tuesday from the Republic of Congo [ROC].
"More than 85 percent of the returnees have been women and children. Under the repatriation program, we hope to assist 49,000 refugees return this year from the Republic of Congo and 32,000 next year. The convoys will be organized every Tuesday and Friday, and we also plan to repatriate Congolese refugees from the Central African Republic, but this program is still being developed," Mahecic said.
Mahecic described the operation as a huge logistical challenge. He noted the refugees are spread out in more than 100 remote sites along a 500-kilometer stretch of the Oubangui River. Another problem, he said is the low water level on the river, which makes navigation difficult.
The UNHCR spokesman said the returnees on the two convoys this week are among an estimated 143,000 civilians who fled to the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic clashes in Equateur in late 2009.
Those deadly assaults were sparked by fishing and farming disputes in Equateur between the Enyele and Munzaya communities. Mahecic said violence in these communities has calmed down, so people now can return home in safety and dignity and resume a normal life.
"They are receiving a specific package of assistance upon arrival. They also are being briefed about the situation and, as part of the reconciliation efforts, we have also set up a small radio station, which has been broadcasting information about the situation in the Equateur province," he said. "The decision was made to launch the repatriation once we were satisfied with conditions on the ground, which are, at the moment, conducive to the returns of people."
Mahecic said thousands of refugees have returned spontaneously from the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. And, he noted, many people who are remaining in the ROC regularly go over to check their lands in Equateur.