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Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees to Central African Republic from DR Congo Restarts

FILE - Central African refugees arrive in Ndu after crossing the Mbomou River, which marks the border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Feb. 5, 2021.

The U.N. refugee agency reports it has restarted a voluntary repatriation operation for thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic who were living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Over the past two years, the U.N. refugee agency has helped more than 5,000 refugees return from Congo to the Central African Republic. The voluntary operation, which has been interrupted on two occasions, resumed on Friday.

The program was first halted in March 2020 when both countries closed their borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The second interruption occurred last December when violence surrounding the C.A.R. presidential elections sent an estimated 92,000 refugees fleeing into the DRC.

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo says a first group of 250 refugees left Mole camp to Zongo city in the northwestern DRC last Friday.

She says a second group of 250 people left the camp on Tuesday morning. Later in the day, she says a 20-minute boat ride will ferry the refugees across the Ubangi River to Bangui, the C.A.R. capital.

“People are only returning to areas where security has improved in the past six months, such as Bangui and the prefectures of Ombella Mpoko and Lobaye. Most of those set to return fled their homes because of violence in 2013. UNHCR and partners will also soon organize voluntary repatriation flights for refugees living in Inke camp in North Ubangi province. Air transport is necessary due to the distances and poor roads,” Mantoo said.

The voluntary repatriation began in November 2019. That followed the signing of a Tripartite agreement between the C.A.R. and DRC in July. Mantoo says nearly 10,000 refugees in three camps hosting them have signed up for voluntary repatriation.

“UNHCR is providing assistance to the returning refugees and together with partners is working on reintegration projects in C.A.R., including in education and agriculture. Some 206,346 C.A.R. refugees live in camps and with host communities in DRC’s three provinces. And UNHCR and partners plan to assist 6,500 of them to return this year,” Mantoo said.

Since violence between armed groups erupted in 2013, more than 680,000 refugees and asylum seekers have fled to Cameroon, the DRC, the Republic of the Congo, and Chad. About a third are being hosted in DRC. Another 630,000 people are displaced within Central African Republic.