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5,000 Rwandan Refugees to be Returned Home from Zambia - 2003-01-26

The U.N. refugee agency said it is making arrangements for the voluntary return of more than 5,000 Rwandan refugees living in camps in western Zambia. The agency has signed an agreement with the Zambian and Rwandan governments, making the repatriation possible.

The U.N. refugee agency said it is shifting its repatriation policy to actively promote refugees to return to Rwanda.

UNHCR spokeswoman Millicent Mutuli said the agency believes it is safe for the Rwandan refugees to return home. She notes there have been no reports that any of the more than one-million Rwandans who have returned home during the past few years have been persecuted.

"There have not been persecutions. We do not have such reports. We have had the return of some 20,000 Rwandan refugees from Tanzania, just in December. And, again, there are no reports. I think there is a strong indication that people can return home, and there are no repercussions on their return," Ms. Mutuli said.

The U.N. refugee agency expects to begin repatriating the refugees in April. In anticipation of this, it is launching an information campaign to inform refugees of the agency's plans.

Ms. Mutuli said the Rwandans will be told about travel arrangements and what they can expect to receive in terms of assistance in Rwanda.

In addition, she said, UNHCR will arrange for refugee leaders in the Zambian camps to visit Rwanda so they can make informed decisions about their return. She said the agency will bring returnees to the camps to tell the refugees what they will find when they get home.

"It is a necessary to-ing and fro-ing because we need to build confidence. Often times refugees have information based on hearsay. A lot of times it is inaccurate. Sometimes there are people who do not have an interest to go back and who are giving stories that do not depict the actual situation on the ground. We do not want to give information that refugees might dismiss as propaganda," she said.

Many of the Rwandan refugees arrived in Zambia more than seven years ago in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. That tragic event killed an estimated half-million people and led another two million to flee into neighboring countries.

There are up to 60,000 Rwandan refugees scattered in countries throughout the African continent. UNHCR spokeswoman Mutuli said the agency hopes to run simultaneous repatriation operations from several countries. She said U.N. officials are talking to the Ugandan government about returning Rwandan refugees.