Angola + 1 more

First Angolan refugees return home from south of Kinshasa

KASANGULU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today started a new phase in its Angola return operation, helping to repatriate Angolan refugees who have been living outside camps and settlements in the western Congolese region of Kasangulu.

Previously, UNHCR had been assisting the repatriation of only camp-based Angolan refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), helping more than 42,000 to return to Angola since 2003.

This morning, 250 Angolan refugees in Kasangulu, located south of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, embarked on a convoy of 10 trucks, as well as a bus for vulnerable refugees in need of special attention. Accompanied by an ambulance and a UNHCR escort, the convoy headed for the border point at Lufu, where UNHCR Angola and the Angolan authorities took over. In Angola the returnees will stay for three days in the Kiowa transit centre of Mbanza Congo. They will receive a return package comprising food rations, construction kits, kitchen sets, plastic sheets, blankets, mats and jerry cans, before being assisted back to their home areas.

The 250 are part of a group of almost 2,000 non-camp-based Angolan refugees who have registered with UNHCR for voluntary repatriation in the Kasangulu area. They have been waiting for more than 20 years for the chance to return to their home areas - mainly in Bengo province near the Angolan capital, Luanda. Some of them had sought asylum in the DRC following Angola's war of independence in 1972. Others fled Angola in 1975, when fighting flared up again after the country's independence.

Like the Angolan refugees formerly hosted in southern DRC's Katanga province, whose repatriation was completed in May this year, the refugees in Kasangulu are eager to go back to Angola after two decades of asylum. The younger refugees who grew up in exile know little about daily life in their home country, but they are excited about what to expect back in Angola.

The refugees in Kasangulu have strongly advocated for return assistance over the past two years. When UNHCR staff based in Bas Congo talked with the refugee committee in Kasangulu, it became evident that help was needed to make return possible. The refugees cannot afford to pay for the transport to the Angolan border by themselves. And in order to ensure that repatriation takes place under safe and dignified conditions, the refugee agency first had to repair some sections of the roads leading to the refugees' areas of origin in Angola.

The next return convoy from Kasangulu is scheduled for August 5. Through twice-weekly convoys, UNHCR expects to complete within four to five weeks the repatriation of the 2,000 who wish to return from the area.

Some 22,000 Angolan refugees remain based in camps and settlements in the DRC, assisted by humanitarian aid from UNHCR, the World Food Programme and implementing partners. Bas Congo province also hosts a number of spontaneously-settled Angolan refugees who are not living in camps or settlements.