The U.N. refugee agency said Saturday that 8,500 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Kasai province had spontaneously abandoned their camp in Angola and were heading to the homes they fled more than one year ago.
The march home from the Lovua settlement in Angola's Lunda Norte province began one week ago. U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic said more than 1,000 refugees already had crossed into DRC and many more were moving toward the border with DRC's Kasai region.
"This appears to be in response to reports of improved security in some of their places of origin,” Mahecic said. “It is also linked to their wish to return, as well as to be back home in time for the beginning of the new school year."
Displaced by violence
Violence broke out in the Kasai region in August 2016, triggered by tensions between traditional chiefs and the government. Deadly clashes intensified between the government and armed groups in March 2017, displacing about 1.4 million people from their homes. An estimated 37,000 others fled across the border into Angola in search of refuge.
Mahecic told VOA the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was engaged in tripartite discussions with Angolan and Congolese authorities to make sure this refugee return movement was well-organized and sustainable.
"The key point for us is to make sure there is proper planning and transport,” he said. “That is why we have engaged both governments on setting up a system where this can be planned, and the transport can be facilitated for those who wish to return home. And that is the key factor. The refugees themselves are the ones making that decision."
Staff members along routes
Mahecic said UNHCR staff members were placed along the return routes to monitor the condition of people arriving and to assess the nature of these spontaneous returns. He said staff members were on hand to provide immediate help and to get firsthand information about the type of assistance the refugees would need when they returned home.
He added that not everyone was on the move. He noted most of the Congolese refugees remained in Angola. He said the UNHCR would continue to monitor the situation to make sure those who returned to their homes in Kasai were doing so voluntarily.