The UN refugee agency has relaunched a repatriation programme that should see more than 40,000 Angolan civilians return to their homes after living for years in a western border region of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A first group of 252 people crossed into northern Angola on seven buses Friday afternoon after leaving the Congolese town of Kimpese in Bas-Congo province earlier in the day. They received a warm welcome at a transit centre in the town of Luvo by Angolan Minister for Assistance and Social Reintegration João Baptista Kussumua and other officials.
The minister said it was an important moment for Angola. “We are starting today the repatriation process which will result in the return of 43,000 refugees,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the childen who return today to make sure they will be able to study,” Kussumua added.
One of the homeward-bound refugees, 57-year-old Emma, was delighted to be going back after 12 years in Angola. “Today, my dream to go back home comes true,” he said. “I am happy because I lose the name ‘refugee,’ I’m no longer a refugee.”
Organized large-scale voluntary returns of Angolans from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stopped in 2007 because of logistical and other difficulties at that time. But DRC is today still home to some 80,000 Angolans refugees, some of whom have been in exile for decades. A UNHCR survey last year found that 43,000 people were still interested in going home.
A new agreement signed in June this year by Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and UNHCR paved the way for the latest repatriation operation. To date, around 20,000 people have signed up for UNHCR help with returning and two return convoys per week are planned.
Refugees have told UNHCR staff that they want to go home because of the improved prospects for peace in Angola; for family reunions; because they feel they would be better off at home; or due to homesickness.
In preparation for today’s return, the refugees were taken on Thursday to a transit centre in Kimpese from their villages and settlements spread over the rolling countryside. They went through medical screening, were given vaccinations and received their voluntary repatriation forms, which will serve as an identity document until they have their Angolan ID cards.
Angola has assured all refugees that the authorities will help them with housing, micro credit, vocational training and other reintegration projects that will help them become self-sufficient. UNHCR will monitor their well-being for up to 18 months.
The repatriation of Angolan refugees is also taking place from other countries in the sub-Saharan region. Return operations from Republic of Congo are expected to start soon, while a few weeks ago some 1,700 Angolan refugees left for home from Zambia.
Large-scale returns can involve huge logistical challenges. Roads and bridges have to be repaired – a task that becomes more challenging with the start of the rainy season.
Some 113,000 Angolan refugees remain in the DRC, the Republic of Congo, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. In October, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration jointly appealed for US$21 million to help Angolan refugees return home from their countries of asylum. So, UNHCR has received just US$8 million.
By Celine Schmitt in Luvo, Angola