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UN Faces Challenges in Repatriating Angola Refugees - 2003-11-19


The United Nations refugee agency says repatriation of Angolan refugees is going well, but there are several challenges slowing their return.

The U.N. refugee agency began helping Angolan refugees go home in June, about a year and a half after the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi finally ended the country's long-running civil war.

UNHCR regional coordinator for southern Africa Kallu Kalumiya has special responsibility for the Angolan repatriation program. He has spent most of his career overseeing the return of refugees in Africa, and he is very optimistic about the situation in Angola.

"I should say that of all operations I have been engaged in for repatriation, this one strikes me as being one of the most promising," said Mr. Kalumiya. "I think it has all the ingredients for a successful return."

The agency says there are roughly 450,000 Angolan refugees living in neighboring countries, and more elsewhere in Africa and Europe.

The UNHCR says it has helped about 45,000 of them go home to Angola since June - more than 10,000 a month. Another 24,000 have gone back on their own.

Originally, Mr. Kalumiya said, the United Nations thought most of the refugees would go back this year, but the agency now expects the bulk of them to return next year. He says the process has turned out to be a lot slower than originally planned.

"The main reason really is Angola itself, because the absorption capacity in Angola is still extremely low," he explained. "In places like Lumbala N'guimbo, where many of those in Zambia would like to go, it is a no-go area. The roads are still mined, the bridges have been blown up."

Aside from landmines, Mr. Kalumiya says there are other challenges slowing down the Angolans' return. They include basic infrastructure problems, especially during the rainy season, when many of the country's roads become impassable, even if they are not mined. The U.N. refugee agency has halted its convoys of returning refugees from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo for several months, until the rains subside. The agency hopes to use that time to prepare for larger-scale returns next year.

Until recently, Mr. Kalumiya says, the Angolan government's reach only extended to the major cities it controlled during the war. Now that the war is over, he said, the government has to take responsibility for the rest of the country.

"Of course, one of those challenges is governance and administration," he stressed. "For the U.N. especially, for the NGOs, we need a partner. We need a governmental partner to take ownership after we leave. So this is still lacking in many parts of Angola, and it is not going to be an easy process."

The United Nations wants to make sure refugees are not resented by the communities they are returning to. The agency is trying to make sure that towns and villages also benefit from U.N. programs aimed at helping refugees by building schools and clinics.

Both the U.N. and the Angolan government are also trying to find a way to manage the AIDS issue. Angola has the lowest HIV infection rate in southern Africa, much lower than the countries where the refugees have been living. The challenge is to make sure returnees do not bring the deadly epidemic home, and also to make sure they are not discriminated against because locals are so afraid of the disease. U.N. officials say they are working with the government to develop and implement a comprehensive AIDS education strategy.