Kallu Kalumiya, regional coordinator for the Angolan repatriation programme, said the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had directly repatriated 45,000 Angolans since June. Some 24,000 had returned of their own accord over the same period, and another 100,000 had gone home since peace finally came to Angola in April 2002.
Kalumiya, speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday said the outlook was positive, with the political, security and humanitarian situation improving all the time.
"It's not the first time we've had repatriations to Angola. There have been a number of false starts in the past - then things have fallen apart. But of all the operations I've engaged in, this strikes me as the most promising. It has all the ingredients for a successful return," he said.
But landmines left over from the three decades of civil war, coupled with poor governance outside of the capital, Luanda, were slowing down the repatriation process, he added.
No-one knows for sure how many landmines are scattered across Angola, but the country is believed to be one of the world's most heavily mined.
"This is a huge, huge constraint to return and reintegration," Kalumiya said. "I would say, so far, we've been lucky. We don't have any reported cases of returnees being hit by landmines, but there are scores of incidents [in general]."
Kalumiya stressed that a key priority for the government should be expanding its control to all parts of the vast nation, and ensuring basic but vital services, such as health and education, were available to those refugees returning from neighbouring countries, as well as an estimated four million internally displaced persons.
"The government has to assume responsibility for the country, and project state power to all parts of Angola. This is a priority," he said. "We need key ministries like health and education out there."
With the approach of the rainy season, UNHCR was suspending most of its refugee repatriation programme, mainly from neighbouring Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and would instead focus on reintegration schemes.
That should set the scene for UNHCR to help another 160,000 returnees next year, on top of an estimated 70,000 who will make their own way home. "Angola is literally a country on the move," Kalumiya said.
However, UNHCR would likely have to raise its budget for 2004 from the US $14.5 million it had originally earmarked. "That was based on a premise which has radically changed. We thought the majority of repatriation would take place in 2003," Kalumiya said. "We've had to revise that because of the low absorption capacity in Angola."
UNHCR's phased repatriation programme had caused some problems back at the camps, with those left behind feeling frustrated.
"There is huge enthusiasm on the part of refugees to go back home. More than 95 percent want to return in spite of all the difficulties," Kalumiya said.
UNHCR, along with its partners the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, directly assists refugees by providing transport, food and shelter materials, and hands out food and other supplies at its reception centres within the country to those who return spontaneously.
Apart from landmine awareness, the agency also teaches returnees and those still in the camps about safe sex.
Angola has one of the lowest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa - around five percent - thanks in part to the inaccessibility of some parts of the country during the conflict. But some fear that the gradual improvement in infrastructure, as well as the return of refugees and IDPs, could fuel an epidemic.
Kalumiya, however, said those concerns were unfounded. "We have done some surveys on a voluntary basis, and the data indicates that the refugee camps have a lower rate of prevalence than in the communities," he said. "Repatriation will not be a precursor for an explosive AIDS crisis."
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