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UNHCR briefing notes: Uganda, West Africa, Afghanistan

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News and Press Release
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Posted
Originally published
Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.

1) UGANDA

A first group of 23 Congolese refugees fleeing recent fighting in DRC's Ituri district was moved away from Uganda's western border regions on Thursday. An estimated 1,000 out of some 11,000 Congolese refugees who had sought asylum in Uganda's Bundibugyo district in the last few weeks, have expressed willingness to move away from the border. The relocation is organised jointly by UNHCR and the Ugandan government. The Congolese refugees are being transferred to Kyakka II camp, the designated location for newly arriving refugees. Most of the refugees are currently scattered across several fishing villages on the southern shores of Lake Albert.

During yesterday's operation, UNHCR sent in three trucks to pick up an expected 250 refugees from Karugutu, a trading centre, some 10 - 15 kms from Lake Albert on the road leading to Fort Portal, south-west Uganda. The refugees had indicated to local authorities that they were willing to be moved away from Karugutu. However, only 23 refugees showed up for the actual move and were transferred to Kyakka II, a refugee camp which already hosts nearly 7,000 mainly Congolese refugees. There are also nearly 2,000 Congolese refugees in Karugutu who have settled there in the last few weeks outside the camp.

Yesterday, a joint team with officials from the government, the Red Cross and UNHCR travelled to Kyakka, south-west of Kampala, to help establish a reception facility for the relocating refugees. The team is setting up basic health and sanitation facilities and assisting in the demarcation of plots for refugee families.

We have also stockpiled, in Kyakka, some basic supplies including blankets, plastic sheeting to cover refugee dwellings, jerry cans, kitchen sets and some clothes to cater for the immediate needs of the new arrivals. World Food Programme has also put in place food rations for 3,000 people.

The Uganda Red Cross Society is now looking at the water resources in the camp and may bring into use some of the boreholes that are capped for emergencies, particularly, if larger numbers of refugees agree to be moved inland.

This morning, the joint relocation team is moving to villages on the southern shores of Lake Albert where it expects to transfer those Congolese refugees who are willing to move. The team will visit Rwebisengo where authorities had registered some 500 refugees by mid-May. Many of the refugees fleeing fighting in Ituri, north-eastern DRC, had come in with large herds of cattle. However, refugees with livestock will not be moved during this phase of the operation.

The team will tomorrow go to Ntoroko, a major landing port on the southern part of the lake. Nearly half of the estimated 11,000 refugees who have fled to Bundibugyo district are in Ntoroko. By mid-May, local authorities here had set aside land on which refugees could put up temporary dwellings at a site nearly one km from the bustling fish trading village. The current relocation exercise is expected to be completed by the weekend, particularly if no large numbers of refugees agree to move.

2) WEST AFRICA

UNHCR continues to be extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in West Africa.

In the west of Côte d'Ivoire, UNHCR and the government of Côte d'Ivoire have now confirmed the arrival of more than 23,000 Liberians over the past two weeks. The number of recent arrivals is, however, is probably higher since many have made their way into Côte d'Ivoire through informal crossing points over the Cavaly river or along the Atlantic coast. The pace of arrivals has slowed since the week-end but it is not clear what caused the drop.

The refugees say they have fled because of the deteriorating security situation in eastern Liberia, particularly since the MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) rebel movement seized the towns of Harper and Pleebo in Liberia's southeastern Mariland County last month.

The new arrivals also include a number of Ivorians who had fled to Liberia in the wake of the crisis in their own country but now decided to go back. UNHCR has learned of a group of 1,000 Ivorians in Harper who are asking to be taken back. The Ivorian army is looking at ways of bringing them safely along the 18 km stretch of road to the border crossing at Prollo, and then across the river in pirogues. About 1,000 Malian and Burkina Faso nationals are also believed to be stuck in Harper.

Work has begun on the Tabou transit centre to expand its capacity from 700 to 3,000 people. The transit centre is already seriously overcrowded with over 2,500 people in it.

Meanwhile UNHCR continues the dialogue with hosting communities on the presence of Liberian refugees. We are happy to report an improvement in the general climate. Whereas many villages were opposed to receiving Liberians in the beginning, more and more are slowly changing their attitude and accepting the situation. We have distributed plastic sheeting in the host villages near the border in a bid to ease the local tensions.

MSF has mobile teams visiting the villages and we remain very concerned about the general health situation, especially of children. Two deaths have already been reported among children and we fear the spread of diarrheal diseases.

Weather conditions are making aid effort all the more difficult. Construction work will be very hard and UNHCR is trying to identify community buildings which could be used to shelter some of the new arrivals, pending completion of the transit centre.

Meanwhile, UNHCR staff in Liberia report that fighting between the government and the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels has flared up near Monrovia again. The capital was nearly deserted on Wednesday as news came of President Taylor's indictment. On Thursday, two camps hosting Sierra Leonean refugees, VOA and Banjor, were overtaken by the fighting and deserted which also affected the sprawling neighbouring camps for displaced Liberians. Tens of thousand refugees and displaced people were seen moving into various locations in Monrovia, many of them seeking refuge in the city. Some of UNHCR local staff have also been affected and many have left their homes and are now displaced.

3) AFGHANISTAN

A total of more than 158,000 Afghan refugees have returned home so far this year under the UNHCR/Afghan transitional government repatriation programme. The number of returnees surged in May, with the repatriation of more than 82,000 people, more than double the number of Afghans who went back during the previous month. The weekly return rate now stands at some 20,000 people.

The number of facilitated returns so far this year from Iran stands at more than 43,000, while more than 115,000 refugees have repatriated from Pakistan. All the returnees from Pakistan undergo iris recognition scanning as part of our efforts to thwart attempts by refugees to fraudulently obtain the travel grant and reintegration assistance.

The number of Afghans returning to their homeland is expected to be the world's largest repatriation movement this year, though the returns from abroad will, nevertheless, be below the 1.8 million who repatriated over 2002.

In the last week more than 1,150 refugees left Pakistan's mountainous Chitral district for their homes in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, a gruelling six-day trip taking them into some of the most rugged territory in the Hindu Kush. They should finally be reaching their villages today.

This week we also had voluntary returns from Russia, when 18 Afghans flew back from Moscow. They repatriated with help from a special fund to assist Afghans who lack the means to get home under their own steam, and whose host governments are unable to provide any transport assistance. The return package includes a plane ticket and a small pre-departure grant. Under this project, more than 230 Afghans have returned so far this year from India, Russia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, and various central Asian states.

In Kabul this week, UNHCR conducted a workshop for directors of the government's Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation coming from all provinces in Afghanistan, with over 100 officials participating in a three-day long workshop opened by Minister Enyatullah Nazari and UNHCR's Chief of Mission, Filippo Grandi. Issues discussed in the workshop included the implementation of return assistance, how to link with development agencies, both within the Afghan government and donor communities.

4) WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY

Yesterday, June 5, was World Environment Day. UNHCR joined the UN Environment Programme and the international community in celebrating the day by raising awareness about environmental matters that are closely linked to operations involving refugees. UNHCR marked the day at its headquarters and through activities in the field including tree planting, camp cleanups, and demonstrations of environmentally friendly practices such as the use of energy-efficient stoves and soil conservation techniques.

This year's World Environment Day is particularly relevant to refugee related programmes as 2003 has been declared the International Year of Freshwater. The World Environment Day theme was "Water - 2 billion people are dying for it". Access to safe water is a basic human right, and is often, for many refugees, the key to life or death. Refugees, when they arrive in large numbers, and unexpectedly, invariably require water to be available for drinking, washing and cooking. These large influxes have major environmental impacts including degradation of natural resources, with disruption of the natural water cycle affecting water quality and quantity.

UNHCR strives to address environmental issues at an early stage in refugee operations, and seeks also the collaboration and support of refugee hosting countries, the donor community and other international organisations to help prevent degradation and redress environmental damage.

To learn more about UNHCR's efforts on the environment in refugee operations, visit www.unhcr.ch/environment