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UNHCR briefing notes: East Timor, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan

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News and Press Release
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Originally published
Peter Kessler - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) East Timor

With only 17 days to go before East Timor becomes the world's youngest nation, UNHCR is concentrating its efforts on facilitating the voluntary return of as many of the remaining 55,000 refugees as possible ahead of the state's transition from U.N. administration to an East Timorese government under President-elect Xanana Gusmao.

Over the last month, more than 6,000 refugees have returned to East Timor, the highest monthly repatriation rate in more than two years. Since the beginning of our repatriation operation in October 1999, nearly 205,000 East Timorese have returned home.

In order to help encourage as many of the remaining 55,000 East Timorese refugees to return, President-elect Gusmao himself is working with UNHCR to encourage his countrymen to repatriate and to work towards reconciliation.

Mr. Gusmao is currently in South Sulawesi together with our head of operations in Dili in a joint effort to broker the return of some 1,000 East Timorese refugees. Earlier Mr. Gusmao and UNHCR staff traveled to neighboring West Timor where mass meetings were held with refugees in Atambua and Kefa.

UNHCR believes that East Timor's imminent independence, our ongoing reconciliation activities, and the extensive mass information campaign will help spur more of the remaining 55,000 refugees to head home in the weeks to come.

2) Burundi

More than 5,000 Burundian refugees have returned home from camps in western Tanzania since March 28 when UNHCR began organising convoys to facilitate their return. Already nearly 60,000 refugees living in camps in Tanzania's Ngara, Kibondo and Kasulu provinces have registered, representing more than 16 per cent of the Burundi refugee population living in camps in Tanzania.

Since late March, UNHCR has maintained a policy to assist returns only to the north of Burundi due to continuing concerns for security in areas such as Ruyigi and Makamba provinces where the majority of the registered refugees would like to return. We're not yet promoting return to Burundi, but as in other not wholly secure countries, such as Afghanistan, we are helping those refugees who have themselves decided to repatriate.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, UNHCR convoys take an average of 500 returnees from the town of Ngara, in north-west Tanzania, to the Kobero border crossing, some 65 kms away. Returnees disembark here and board other trucks on the Burundi side of the border. From Kobero, they are driven to the Songore transit centre in Muyinga province, Burundi, nearly 50 kms away. Those returning to villages close to the transit centre are taken home immediately while Burundians repatriating to outlying areas of the province spend a night at the transit facility before they are transported to their communes the following day.

Tanzania is host to the largest number of refugees in Africa. It is home to nearly 540,000 refugees from Burundi, of whom nearly 370,000 are assisted by UNHCR. The East African country also shelters some 110,000 Congolese (DRC) refugees and nearly 30,000 Rwandans.

3) Sierra Leone

With the presidential and parliamentary elections drawing near in Sierra Leone, more Sierra Leonean refugees in neighbouring countries or further afield are adopting a 'wait-and-see ' attitude. The remaining refugees now want to see what happens during and after the elections before heading home. During the first months of this year, nearly 30,000 refugees have been able to return home with land convoys bringing up to 2,300 people per week from Guinea and Liberia this month.

On 1st May, a group of 11 refugees were flown back from Guinea-Bissau to the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. This was the second operation of its kind in 2002, bringing to 17 (out of a refugee population of 319 ) the number repatriated from Guinea Bissau this year.

Since September 2000, UNHCR has registered and facilitated the return of nearly 90,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, mainly from Guinea and Liberia, by boat, by land and on foot (Guinea spontaneous arrivals). They received the standard reintegration assistance package of two months' food rations, household items and agricultural tools. 51,000 of them are now reintegrated in their home areas. Another 25,000 are still hosted in temporary resettlement projects, while the remainder did not seek any aid. Another estimated 70,000 people are believed to have returned spontaneously making a total of 160,000 returnees in all.

All convoys will cease during the electoral period, as from May 7, to avoid possible disruptions to the electoral process.

UNHCR obtained an extension of deadline for returnees to register for the election. The deadline has now expired, but it allowed returnees to register until April 24, less than a month before the vote is due to take place.

There are some 165,000 Sierra Leonean refugees remaining in the sub-region, including an estimated 95,000 in Guinea (including around 40,000 unregistered refugees living outside the camps), 55,000 in Liberia (including an estimated 16,000 outside the camps), some 7,600 in the Gambia, 2,000 in Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire respectively and a few hundreds in Guinea Bissau and Senegal.

4) Kosovo

UNHCR has issued a detailed new position paper on the continued protection needs of asylum-seekers and refugees from Kosovo. The paper is intended to guide states and others involved in processing Kosovo asylum-seekers and making decisions related to the return of Kosovo refugees to their homeland.

In the paper, UNHCR says that, despite a range of improvements in the general situation in Kosovo, the situation of minority groups remains a major concern. In particular, people who are not ethnic Albanians continue to face severe security threats which place their lives and fundamental freedoms at risk, and continue to force some people to leave the province. As a result, UNHCR says its essential position remains that members of the minority groups in Kosovo described in the paper should continue to benefit from international protection in countries of asylum.

The agency also stresses that minority returns should take place on a strictly voluntary basis, and should be based on fully informed decisions by the individuals concerned. The paper notes that, although the vast majority of Kosovo refugees, who fled the province in the late 1990s have now returned home, no significant spontaneous returns of minorities - either among those still displaced inside Kosovo or living as refugees elsewhere - have taken place in the past year.

The few cases who have gone back, the paper says, "would appear to have been spurred more by push factors, such as increasingly difficult circumstances in exile, or politically-motivated return pressures." The paper then goes on to state emphatically that "Minorities should not be forced, compelled or induced to return to Kosovo."

Around 900,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo since June 1999, when K-FOR entered the province. But the huge majority of these are from the Kosovo Albanian majority in the province. Around 231,000 people from Kosovo, mostly Serbs, are in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, many of them living in difficult circumstances, and there are around 22,000 people from minorities still displaced inside Kosovo itself, living a very precarious existence.

The full text of the 7-page Kosovo paper, entitled "UNHCR Position on the Continued Protection Needs of Individuals from Kosovo" is available on the UNHCR website.

Follow the Balkans link from the home page, then the Kosovo link in the left margin, followed by the Protection/Asylum link.

5) Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are returning to villages they fled because of the combined effects of war and drought, but the country still hosts some one million IDPs.

In Afghanistan, UNHCR is spearheading a programme aimed at assisting IDPs who are able to return to their areas of origin. In partnership with the Ministry of Repatriation, IOM and GTZ, UNHCR plans to assist as many as 400,000 IDPs to return to their homes this year. We are currently carrying out a country-wide exercise to register IDPs, collect information on their home areas, and organise a return programme.

Already some 150,000 displaced Afghans have gone home with the support of UNHCR and IOM. Another estimated 400,000 are known to have spontaneously returned to their villages since the fall of the Taliban last year.

This week, UNHCR and IOM organized the first major movement from Kabul to Bamyan, in central Afghanistan. In a survey carried out in the capital in March, some 150,000 IDPs - from virtually every province of the country -- expressed the desire to return home. In recent days some 500 IDPs have been transported to Bamyan. Earlier in the year, some 15,000 persons were helped to return to the Shomali Plain under a joint UNHCR-IOM operation from the ex-Soviet embassy compound.

UNHCR has moved more than 5,500 IDPs from Hesar Shahi camp near Jalalabad back to their villages in Nangarhar, Laghman and Kabul provinces. Hesari Shahi has been home to more than 24,000 IDPs for the last three years.

Finding a durable solution for the 400,000 IDPs in southern Afghanistan is one of the biggest challenges facing the humanitarian community. Beginning next week, UNHCR and GTZ will start to repatriate some of the 40,000 IDPs living in five makeshift camps near the southern border post of Spin Boldak. But many of them may not be able to return home soon, among them many ethnic Pashtuns who were forced from their homes in northern Afghanistan earlier this year while other are nomads who lost everything in the devastating drought that has ravaged the region.