Afghanistan + 4 more

UNHCR Briefing Notes: North Caucasus, Pakistan/Afghanistan, Tanzania/Burundi, Hong Kong, Laos

This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below left
Ron Redmond

1. North Caucasus

UNHCR aid convoys could begin delivering U.N. humanitarian assistance inside Chechnya as early as next week, security conditions permitting. We're looking at this first convoy - probably around 10 trucks to the Grozny area - as a pilot project to provide aid to the civilian population. We will want to make sure security is in place and that an effective distribution and monitoring system can be established. The convoy of local drivers and local UNHCR staff will originate from our base of operations in Stavropol, southern Russia. We've already sent 32 convoys and more than 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid to internally displaced people in neighboring Ingushetia since last autumn. The 33rd convoy to Ingushetia is scheduled to depart Stavropol tonight. I have no statistics on IDP numbers crossing between Ingushetia and Chechnya since Tuesday because the border was closed the last two days, reportedly for security reasons linked to the anniversary of Stalin's deportation of Chechens during World War II.

2. Pakistan

A repatriation commission meeting between the Taliban, the government of Pakistan and UNHCR was held in Kabul on Wednesday (23 Feb.) to endorse a UNHCR repatriation plan for the return of at least 100,000 Afghan refugees from Pakistan this year. UNHCR will provide logistical assistance to the returnees.

Under the Afghanistan amnesty law of 1997, the Taliban agrees that returnees will be exempt from conscription and will be able to recover their properties and land. UNHCR will be allowed to monitor the repatriation process on both sides of the border.

An information campaign will be conducted by UNHCR and Taliban officials in the refugee villages in Pakistan to inform the population on the conditions of reintegration in the areas of return.

Pakistan is still hosting more than 1.2 million Afghan refugees. The majority are living in 203 refugee villages in Baluchistan and Punjab provinces of Pakistan. More than 2.5 million have returned home since 1990, of whom 92,000 returned in 1999.

3. Tanzania

The number of refugees arriving in Tanzania from Burundi has fallen sharply since the beginning of February. Only 5,000 new refugees have been recorded so far this month in Tanzania, compared to over 23,000 in January. The recent arrivals reported continued fighting between government troops and rebels, particularly in the Gitega and Ruyigi Provinces of Burundi, and a resurgence of fighting closer to the border with Tanzania. Some new arrivals reported the border fighting was also preventing more people from fleeing.

In a now typical incident, rebels recently arrived at a village located between the Ruyigi and Gitega towns. When the approximately 100 families in the village refused to hand over their cattle, the rebels opened fire, forcing most of the villagers to flee, refugees said. After the attack, government soldiers arrived and fired at the remaining villagers, and at least 15 persons were reported by refugees to have been killed. Fighting was also reported in Kayanza Province (northwestern Burundi), where 30 villagers were reported killed, refugees said.

All new arrivals from Burundi are transferred to Karago camp in Tanzania, which now hosts 40,000 refugees.

Arrivals from the DR of Congo have also slowed. So far, some 600 new arrivals were recorded in February, compared to 1,300 in January. The refugees, who reportedly fled from Baraka, claim they were obliged to leave due to acute food shortages during the past few months. Others who arrived from Uvira and Fizi claimed that heavy fighting is still raging and rebel forces continue to loot villages. Much of the local population is still hiding in the forest, they said.

4. Hong Kong

The High Commissioner appreciates the decision this week of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to grant the right of abode to the remaining 973 Vietnamese refugees and 327 non-refugees whose repatriation to Vietnam has not been cleared by Hanoi authorities on nationality grounds. This gesture further demonstrates the commitment of China's SAR authorities to the protection of refugees in Hong Kong.

The decision is the accomplishment of three years of concerted efforts by the HKSAR Government, UNHCR and non-governmental partners, with the crucial support of the donor community, toward the self-reliance of this group. This permanent solution brings an end to the last chapter of the Comprehensive Plan of Action in Hong Kong.

In the coming weeks, UNHCR will conduct an information campaign in coordination with the SAR authorities and Caritas Hong Kong to actively encourage the 1,400 individuals to apply for the right of abode under the Widened Local Resettlement Scheme. This scheme will enable them to benefit from public housing and other social welfare assistance and will ultimately lead to Hong Kong citizenship after seven years.

Since the first influx of boat people in 1975, more than 200,000 people have landed in Hong Kong, of whom 143,000 have been resettled to third countries and 66,000 returned to Vietnam (i.e. 57,000 voluntarily under UNHCR's auspices and 9,000 under the Hong Kong Government's Orderly Departure Programme).

5. Laos

The last group of 181 returnees from Ban Napho camp in Thailand left a transit center at Nasaat in Laos on Sunday and are now in their home villages in Pak Ngeum district. This completes the repatriation of 1,164 Lao from the Ban Napho camp, which was carried out between 28 September and 15 December. With assistance from UNHCR, these returnees are now rebuilding their homes and most are preparing for the next rice planting season.

The emptying of the transit center ends more than a decade of efforts by UNHCR to promote voluntary repatriation of the Lao people in Thailand. More than 350,000 people fled Laos beginning in 1975. Around 325,000 Lao have resettled in third countries and more than 25,000 others have returned to Laos under UNHCR's repatriation program.

UNHCR is grateful to the Lao government for its cooperation in making the repatriation and reintegration of the returnees possible.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.