LUANDA, 27 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Some 320,000 refugees have returned to Angola since the 2002 peace accord was signed, and the focus of aid agencies is shifting from repatriation to reintegration.
During 27 years of civil war an estimated 500,000 Angolans fled to neighbouring countries - Zambia, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and South Africa - and millions more were displaced internally.
Of the 320,000 who came home, 185,000 were helped with transport or given assistance packages by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
But the agency's Organised Repatriation Operation in Angola comes to an end this year, and from 2006 it will no longer ferry refugees wanting to return - the only exception might be a group of 3,000 Angolan refugees who fled the still-troubled Cabinda province and remain in the Republic of Congo.
However, those who manage to return under their own steam will continue to receive repatriation packages.
"Reception centres will still be open and returnees coming in on their own will still get assistance. They're still going to receive the starter kits [containing household items and agricultural inputs] and rations, but they won't get transport from countries of refuge," said UNHCR spokeswoman Maria Benevides.
The World Food Programme (WFP) provides returnees at reception centres a minimum of two months' rations and agricultural supplies before being resettled.
WFP then aims to support returnees with rations for at least one agricultural season, to allow them space to attain a level of self-sufficiency.
Despite ongoing appeals, WFP's operation remains critically underfunded, forcing the agency to cut rations to its beneficiaries. Urgent contributions were required to avoid further ration cuts from the end of September, WFP warned. The agency needs US $13 million, or 19,500 mt of food, to continue its programmes through to December.
UNHCR said it expects to repatriate around 55,000 Angolans by the end of the year.
CHALLENGES OF REINTEGRATING
As the repatriation programme enters its final stages, UNHCR has begun to focus on entrenching returnees in Angolan society. But significant challenges remain.
In May a survey conducted in the bigger refugee camps in Zambia noted that, with elections scheduled for 2006, refugees were concerned about political stability, feared forced military recruitment and were worried about the lack of basic services (health, education, water) in areas of return and resettlement.
The timing of returns was also problematic, as some refugees were busy harvesting while repatriation was taking place and students waiting to sit exams chose to postpone their return to Angola.
For those refugees who have returned, the reality of everyday life in Angola has presented obstacles.
"Everyone has to have a place to call home, so we are here to call this place home," said Anton Muti, 28, a returnee who has been living in Angola's Moxico province on the Zambian border for nearly a year.
He was well aware of the challenges facing returnees: the country is still plagued by landmines, there have been reports of crop failures in some provinces, and access to basic social services remains poor for the majority of people.
At the refugee reception centre in Luena, the capital of Moxico, newly arrived returnee Tikky Tiago Junior, 34, celebrated being back on home soil.
"I am an Angolan; I have come home to the country of my birth. I [spent] almost my whole life in Maheba refugee camp [in Zambia]. We were restricted; we could not leave the camp without a pass or we would be jailed - this is freedom for me," he said.
Once resettled, Junior believed he would soon be self-sufficient. "I know how to farm - I was farming in Zambia, so that's not a problem for me," he told IRIN.
But Muti, who settled in the Kawangu area a few kilometres outside Luena along with 1,600 other returnees, was less sure. He spent 21 years in Maheba refugee camp, where 90 percent of the refugees were smallholder farmers.
However, he has been unable to secure any land since settling in Kawangu nearly a year ago.
"We have not planted any crops because we're still negotiating with the local authority to get land to plant crops; landmines are a big problem - even those with relatives [who have land] here cannot crop because the fields are mined," Muti said. "It is a slow process."
Sometimes mines had been found in fields thought to have been cleared, further restricting food production.
Returnees have also had a mixed reception from some Angolans, who viewed them not as returning countrymen, but as foreigners competing for scarce resources.
"There are many things happening between us who have returned and the residents here - there's discrimination and violence. Relations are tense ... returning to a country you have not lived in is a problem," Muti said. "There's a kind of segregation, you see."
Language was also a problem. "I don't know how to speak Portuguese so I cannot find a job," Muti complained.
Returnee Mutanda Chingingi (27) said being educated in English in Zambia was a negative in the Angolan context.
"I've had a three-month Portuguese language training course [run by the Jesuit Relief Service, an NGO,] but when you try to apply it, it's a problem. You can't get a job with the NGOs [that are implementing aid projects in the province] and you can't get a job with the government if you were not educated in Angola," he explained.
The UNHCR associate programme officer in Luena, Tapiwa Huye, noted that the agency had a protection team for investigating incidents of discrimination, violence and sexual harassment against returnees.
Muti added that political intolerance was still a problem in Moxico as returnees "are called UNITAs", irrespective of whether they had supported the former rebel group or not. It was also very difficult to obtain birth certificates for children and identity documents for adults, and the lack of official documentation set back reintegration, he argued.
Returnees in Moxico also noted that public service delivery in their remote region was weak, but aid workers said this was the case for ordinary Angolans as well.
It was tough to entice professionals such as teachers, doctors and nurses to work in the provinces - where they might have to survive for months without being paid.
Aid workers were concerned about the effect negative experiences of returnees might have on the pace of voluntary repatriation in the months ahead. Matthew Ollins of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' (OCHA) Transitional Coordination Unit in Luanda said many refugees were finding that there was less access to basic social services in Angola than in their countries of refuge.
"The main challenge is to make sure fair and equal attention is given to the local community, which may also be vulnerable, as well as to former combatants and returnees. Reconciliation will be fostered by fairer and greater access to social services [including protection and land rights]," Ollins suggested.
UNHCR was well aware that the lack of basic services was "a problem everywhere in Angola", and was keen that particular attention should be paid to extending social services in areas of return to avoid a 'second migration', with refugees moving again in search of aid.
"There are some programmes to improve social services ... health posts and schools are being rehabilitated through UNHCR funding, or our assistance to partners in fundraising. With the reintegration initiative, the idea is to function as an advocacy arm with MINARS [Ministry for Social Assistance and Reinsertion] and with other UN agencies to make sure that these areas of return are considered priorities for the medium- and long-term," said Benevides.
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