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Refugees Returning From Burundi to Homes in Congo - 2004-09-07

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says large numbers of Congolese refugees have left Burundi and returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past few days. The UNHCR says it is not encouraging these returns.

Because of security concerns, the U.N. Refugee Agency says its staff does not have access to the border area to monitor the returns. It says it is unable to establish the exact number of Congolese refugees who are leaving Burundi.

The agency says it knows of at least 500 people who have recently returned, but believes that number may be much higher.

U.N. Refugee Spokeswoman, Marie-Helene Verney, says many refugees are going back home because they believe conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo have improved. She says the UNHCR does not agree with this assessment.

"We consider that conditions in their area of origin, mostly around Bukavu, are not at this moment appropriate for safe return and even more importantly perhaps, long-term re-integration," she said. "So, at this moment, we would not actually consider organizing returns."

About 20,000 Congolese refugees fled to Burundi in July, following an outbreak of fighting in the south Kivu region of eastern Congo. On August 13 the Gatumba transit center near Burundi's border with Congo was attacked. At least 152 Congolese refugees died and another 100 were injured.

Ms. Verney says the center in Gatumba has been closed. She says the Burundian government plans to close all transit centers in the border area for security reasons and wants to move the refugees further inland where they will be safer. But, she says many of the refugees are reluctant to go.

"People are still traumatized," she added. "There are still people who are wounded. Seven of them were airlifted to Nairobi yesterday for treatment in Kenya. Some of the refugees are still very reluctant to move, because they feel however unsafe that area is, they want to stay close to that border because they want to be able to go back to the other side in case things get worse for them in Burundi."

Ms. Verney says the UNHCR has begun a campaign to inform the refugees of the advantages of relocating to two new camps being built away from the border. Besides being safer, she says the UNHCR will provide the refugees with all their needs, including water, food, schools, and sanitation.