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UNHCR Launches $62 Million Appeal For Return of Congolese Refugees

The U.N. refugee agency Tuesday is launching an appeal for $62 million to help hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees return home. The money also will provide protection and assistance programs for more than one million internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lisa Schlein reports from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says it wants to take advantage of the better atmosphere in the Democratic Republic of Congo to bring as many refugees home as possible.

It says important developments during the past year have raised hopes that more refugees will want to go home. These developments include the country's first democratic elections in four decades.

U.N. refugee spokesman Ron Redmond says the relative stability in the country has helped boost the number of returns. He notes nearly 90,000 Congolese refugees have gone home from neighboring countries since the UNHCR began its repatriation operations in October 2004.

In addition, he says nearly one-half million internally displaced people last year went back to their places of origin.

"Obviously, we want to see this momentum continue and we are hoping donors will respond quickly and adequately to this appeal," he said. "There is now a real window of opportunity to help uprooted Congolese return and rebuild their lives. More than 400,000 Congolese remain in exile in nine neighboring countries. They live in camps or designated areas. Most have no resources to return. Some have spent decades in exile, waiting for a lasting peace before going home."

The UNHCR says it plans to spend $47 million of the appeal to cover voluntary repatriation programs for Congolese from Tanzania, Republic of Congo, and Zambia. The rest of the money, or $15 million, will be used to support internally displaced people and the relatives that are hosting them.

Redmond says there are still many places in the eastern Congo that remain unstable and where it would not be safe to return refugees. For example, he says hundreds of thousands of Congolese were newly displaced last year because of localized fighting.

"There is still an environment of widespread impunity in parts of the country," he said. "The human rights of displaced people are often violated in the country. Eastern areas of the DRC remain volatile. The country is one of the poorest in the world. Life expectancy is low. The rule of law is very weak and social and economic conditions are extremely difficult in parts of the country."

Nevertheless, he says conditions in the country have changed for the better and many people who have lived in exile for many years are eager to return. To help them restart their lives, Redmond says the UNHCR will give each returnee an assistance package that includes tools and seeds, household items and construction material.