Afghanistan + 3 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Zambia/Angolans, Afghanistan

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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. 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) ZAMBIA/ANGOLANS

UNHCR estimates that more than 200,000 Angolan refugees living Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are willing to return to Angola this year. A survey carried out in Zambia last week indicates that up to 60 percent of an estimated 210,000 Angolan refugees living in Zambia are willing to go home in 2003. The survey covered more than 14,000 families (representing over 50,000 individuals) in four refugee camps in Zambia.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which hosts 192,000 Angolan refugees, informal estimates from the Bas-Congo, one of the main refugee-hosting areas bordering northern Angola, indicate that up to 90 percent of Angolan refugees there are interested in returning this year.

The results of the Zambia survey differed sharply from camp to camp. In Meheba, northwestern Zambia, 63 percent said they would like to repatriate this year, while in Nangweshi, in the southwest, only 13 percent expressed a desire to do so. The reason for the discrepancy is that most of the Angolan refugees in Nangweshi originate from former UNITA-controlled zones in Angola's Moxico province, which they consider more volatile. The survey also covered Ukwimi refugee camp, which houses about 2,000 demobilised former UNITA combatants. Ninety percent of them want to go back.

UNHCR is racing against the clock to get everything ready for the return movement, which is expected to start in May or June. Eventually, nearly half a million Angolans driven from their country by 27 years of civil war could go back. UNHCR has stockpiled relief items in Lusaka, Zambia, in preparation for the imminent repatriation. These include 68,000 blankets, 34,000 kitchen sets and 68,000 jerry cans, as well as soap and 40,000 construction tool kits. More items are being purchased this week, including 40 medical kits, 43,000 sleeping mats, sanitary material and communications equipment for 50,000 families.

In Zambia, NGOs working with UNHCR have started looking at transportation, while DRC's Bas-Congo region will soon organise a go-and-see visit for refugee representatives. UNHCR in Angola warns that more information activities, de-mining and mine-awareness training are necessary before the repatriation can start in earnest. The road conditions will also constitute a significant obstacle.

More than 90,000 Angolans have returned home spontaneously, following a cease-fire agreement signed in April 2002. The number of spontaneous returns is now said to have dwindled in some of the provinces with the beginning of the rainy season and the news of an imminent UNHCR repatriation effort. UNHCR launched an appeal last year for $34.5 million to pay for repatriation and reintegration of Angolan refugees until the end of 2004. So far only $6.5 million has been received.

2) HIGH COMMISSIONER IN AFGHANISTAN

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers arrived in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-I-Sharif this morning after a 12-hour trip by road from Kabul. During the journey, the High Commissioner passed through the Salang tunnel, which only just recently re-opened following extensive snows that had blocked the road.

Mr. Lubbers this morning opened the first meeting of the Return Commission, which was chaired by Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Enyatullah Nazari. The region's main commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Mr. Lubbers and the Minister to open today's important first meeting. Mr. Lubbers had tried to fly into Mazar on Thursday following a similar attempt the day before, but due to bad weather his helicopter had to turn back after only 45 minutes because of poor weather.

Afghanistan's Return Commissions, sponsored by the government, are looking at ways to help displaced Afghans return to their communities. There are more than 720,000 internally displaced Afghans, including both families who left their homes due to security incidents as well as people who lost their livelihood as a result of the long drought that seems to be ending in some regions.

Mazar-I-Sharif's Return Commission today brought together the region's main leaders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum from the Jumbush party, Gen. Ustad Atta Mohammad from the Jamiat, and the mainly ethnic Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat party local head, Saradar Saeedi. Representatives from the Afghan Human Rights Commission and UNAMA also joined Mr. Lubbers and Minister Enyatullah. The participants discussed concrete measures to resolve some of the issues that prevent displaced persons from returning to the north at this time.

Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to visit Pul-I-Khumri and also plans to visit Nahrin District in Balkh Province, where UNHCR and its partners have helped rebuild more than 5,000 homes destroyed during two recent earthquakes. He ends his mission in Afghanistan, his fourth to the region since taking office in 2001, on Sunday, before flying to Pakistan and Iran.