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UNHCR Cites Progress in African Refugee Returns

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says it has made considerable progress toward its goal of returning home up to two million refugees to nine African countries. The agency says it has repatriated more than 350,000 refugees in the first year of a five-year operation.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is not easy to run nine parallel repatriation operations. But, it says progress is being made and in the case of Sierra Leone, the repatriation operation has just been completed.

But the Director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau, David Lambo, notes the return of 27,000 refugees to Sierra Leone in 2004 and 33,000 the year before was the easy part of the operation. He says what is much harder is getting the international community to pay for long-term development assistance.

"We still have unemployment of 75 to 80 percent," said David Lambo. "And, this is not sustainable. If we are not able to restart the economy in a major way, we will not break the cycle of violence and then in five years time or even less, we will start getting again another problem and then we will lose credibility altogether in the continent."

The U.N. refugee agency says it hopes to repatriate more than one half million refugees to eight other African countries this year. Mr. Lambo says he expects to complete the operation in Angola with the return of the country's remaining 75,000 refugees. He says the agency plans to return 150,000 refugees to Burundi this year.

The UNHCR official says Liberia will not slip back into war because of the large presence of U.N. peacekeepers. If the elections in October go well, he says refugees will continue to return home.

Even in a failed state such as Somalia, he says thousands of refugees have willingly gone back to the peaceful northern part of the country known as Somaliland.

Mr. Lambo calls Sudan an enormous challenge and says the UNHCR is not rushing to return its half million refugees. Added to this case load, he says, are another 200,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Darfur.

He says he expects that war to end relatively soon since the international community will no longer tolerate conflicts that go on for decades.

"We have 200,000 refugees in Chad," he said. "It is not sustainable. The environment is so harsh there that they have to come back home soon rather than later. They cannot stay there for the next 20 years. There is no way that Africa is going to allow basically that crisis to continue even for a decade. We have to find a solution to it. And, we will find a solution to it. I am convinced that in the next two years or so, we will find a solution to that crisis."

Smaller returns also are envisioned to Eritrea and Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.N. refugee agency estimates the cost of this year's operation at $150 million. Mr. Lambo says the agency will call another donors' conference if it does not get the support it needs.