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UNHCR Briefing Notes: Africa, North Caucasus, Timor

This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below left
Ron Redmond

1. Africa

The High Commissioner's address on African issues before the Security Council yesterday came amid renewed interest in the crucial issue of caring for the world's estimated 20-25 million internally displaced people.
This Sunday, the High Commissioner arrives in Tanzania to begin a 10-day, three-nation visit to some of the major refugee situations in the Great Lakes and Southern Africa Region. While in Tanzania, the High Commissioner will meet with senior government officials in Dar es Salaam and will also visit Karago Refugee Camp in Kibondo district. She departs Tanzania on Wednesday (19 January) for Pretoria, South Africa, where she will meet with South African President Thabo Mbeki and other officials. At the end of her South African visit on 23 January, Mrs. Ogata will travel to Lusaka, Zambia where she will meet senior government officials and visit Angolan refugees in camps in south-western Zambia. She is scheduled to depart Zambia on 25 January at the end of her ten-day Africa visit.

Burundi/Tanzania - The rate of arrival of Burundians into Tanzania has continued steadily, with nearly 1,000 people arriving in Tanzania every day. Since the beginning of the year, over 10,000 Burundian refugees have arrived into Kibondo district from communes in eastern Burundi and have been settled into a newly-opened site - Karago Refugee Camp. But within three weeks of its opening, Karago Camp has nearly reached half its capacity of 45,000 to 50,000. This situation in Tanzania is very worrying, particularly if the refugees continue to arrive at the rate we've seen over the past few weeks. UNHCR has utilised all sites allocated for refugees by the Tanzanian government. There are no additional sites even for contingencies. Options for the future settlement of newly-arriving Burundian refugees in Tanzania are very few and very costly.

2. North Caucasus

Daily numbers of Chechens returning from Ingushetia have dropped sharply over the past few days, as fighting and artillery bombardment resumed around Gudermes and Shali, which had been previously regarded as relatively quiet. The daily number of those crossing back to Chechnya dropped to a mere 300 on Thursday, down from 1,500 or more just a few days ago. The drop is also linked to recent statements by Russian military commanders that men between the age of 10 and 60 will not be allowed in and out of Chechnya and will not be considered "refugees." The Russian military are now reported to be preventing men between 10 and 60 from leaving or entering Chechnya.

UNHCR is very concerned and we have asked the Russian government for clarification of the military statements. All those fleeing the war in Chechnya are in need of international protection regardless of their gender and age.

In addition to weekly convoys to Ingushetia's capital Nazran, UNHCR this week sent an 11-truck relief convoy to Dagestan's's capital Makhachkala. Dagestan hosts some 7,000 people displaced from Chechnya during the current bout of fighting, in addition to some 6,000 displaced during a Chechen rebel incursion into Dagestan last August.

According to various estimates, more than 180,000 displaced people remain in Ingushetia. 140,000 of them are accommodated with host families, some 25,000 in camps and another 28,000 in makeshift spontaneous settlements.

3. Timor

There has been a significant rise this week in the number of Timorese returnees who have asked for UNHCR's help before going back to their home areas and facing their communities again. During the last seven days we have also seen more repatriations of Timorese alleged to be former members of the militia. We've also seen the first known case of a community refusing to reintegrate several returnee families.

Between end-October and end-December, UNHCR mediated 51 separate cases of people who were reintroduced to their community after reconciliation meetings. Twenty-seven of these were in Dili and follow-up visits have shown that all of these were successful. In the last seven days alone, 18 cases have been handled.

On Monday, however, a neighborhood in Dili refused to accept the return of three families and three individuals to the area, alleging that both the men and women were active in the militia. UNHCR and its partners are working on the cases.

With the increased numbers of alleged militia members returning, we have seen a rise in tension at the Dili transit center, with young men hanging around the entrance, trying to identify any Timorese moving in or out. UNHCR has put on more security guards, backed up by a 24-hour INTERFET presence, at the transit center to ensure that returnees are not harassed. We have had to intervene on several occasions in the past week to make sure that returnees' basic entitlements and rights are respected.

Working with IOM, we had two repatriation movements today (Friday). A ship with 400 returnees bound for Dili and an overland convoy with 227 people from Atambua in West Timor to Motaain in East Timor. The total number of returnees since October 8 now stands at 129,032.

Also today, UNHCR launched a daily radio programme in Bahasa (Indonesia's main language) and Tetun - the main indigenous language of East Timor. The 30-minute program will be aired twice a day on seven local radio stations in West Timor.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.