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UN to Repatriate 2 Million Africans - 2004-03-07

The United Nations refugee agency says it hopes to repatriate up to two million refugees from nine African countries during the next few years. Key government officials and representatives from donor states and international humanitarian agencies will meet Monday at U.N. headquarters to work out plans for supporting this mass move back home.

The U.N. refugee agency, which normally deals in humanitarian disasters, now has some good news to report from Africa. Numerous wars and long-running civil conflicts are being resolved. Peace has returned to Angola and Sierra Leone, and negotiations are under way to end long-term fighting in a number of countries, including Sudan and Burundi.

The Director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau, David Lambo, says the possibility has never been better of returning millions of African refugees to the homes they fled many years ago.

"We have the potential, I think, over the next three to four years, perhaps five years, to repatriate well over two million persons in Africa," he said. "So we see this very much as a new dawn, if you wish, in terms of hopefully lessening of humanitarian crises in Africa and a movement away and looking more positively at long-term sustainable development and post-conflict recovery."

Mr. Lambo says the ministerial meeting in Geneva has been called to alert the international community that it is at last possible to resolve some of Africa's most enduring refugee problems.

But he warns that peace negotiations in some countries remain fragile and, without continued international support, could collapse into renewed war.

"Thus we saw, for example, in the case of Sudan, where after 10 years the peace process in the time of the early '70s collapsed and we had a renewed civil war," said Mr. Lambo. "And, the same thing applied earlier in the '90s in Liberia. So it is very important that we make this effort sustainable and that we really do break the cycle of violence."

Mr. Lambo says it is wonderful that millions of refugees will soon be able to return to their home countries. But he says it would be tragic if the world fails to give them the economic and social support they will need when they finally get back home.