Angola + 2 more

UNHCR Briefing Notes: Chechnya, Timor, Angolans in Zambia

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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
Kris Janowski

1. The High Commissioner to address the UN Security Council

The High Commissioner on Thursday will address refugee issues in Africa in a statement to the Security Council. The text of her statement, as well as a press release, will be available Thursday.

2. Chechnya

UNHCR's relief operation in the Northern Caucasus continues. The larger scale humanitarian effort and the return to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya have somewhat improved the situation on the ground in Ingushetia. In conversations with UNHCR staff on the ground, Russian officials say a "humanitarian disaster" in Ingushetia has been prevented. The republic now hosts between 150,000 and 180,000 displaced people from Chechnya after an estimated 70,000 people have gone back. But conditions remain difficult and a sizeable number of people are expected to spend the winter in Ingushetia. UNHCR and its partner agencies are now working on longer term sanitary arrangements, buying water tankers and sewage pumps, digging more wells and latrines. This morning, the 21st UNHCR convoy reached Ingushetia's capital Nazran from Stavropol.

The flow of people across the Chechen-Ingush border continues in both directions. Those going back to Chechnya to stay now outnumber those leaving.

But while the situation in Ingushetia slowly improves, UNHCR continues to be extremely concerned about the fate of up to 20,000 or more civilians trapped in Grozny for months and unable to flee.

3. Colombia

A two-man UNHCR team has completed a mission to Panama to assess the needs of 355 Colombians who fled fighting in the Colombian coastal town of Jurado in mid-December. The Colombians are currently receiving temporary assistance and protection in the Panamanian Pacific coastal village of Jacque.

Jurado, a municipality of some 5,000 people in northwestern Colombia near the Panamanian border, was attacked by hundreds of guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on December 12. In the wake of the guerrilla attack, the residents of Jurado escaped by boat along the Pacific Coast to Jacque, population 600.

The UNHCR team was in Panama from January 2-7. They reported that the 355 Colombians - about 100 families - are staying with townspeople in Jacque. They are receiving help from Panamanian authorities, the National Refugee Office (ONPAR) and the Catholic Church, with funding from UNHCR.

The UNHCR team, from our offices in Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, Colombia, said the Colombians are generally in good shape and had been well-received by Panamanian authorities. ONPAR officials accompanied the mission to Jacque. The team said most of the Colombians expressed a desire to return home once the security situation is restored in Jurado.

The deterioration of the Colombian conflict in the past few years has led to the internal displacement of at least 800,000 people since 1996, according to most estimates. In the first six months of 1999, an estimated 123,000 were displaced. UNHCR opened an office in Bogota in June 1998 and in November established its first field presence with the opening of a field office in Barrancabermeja. Two more UNHCR field offices are to be opened by the end of this year under UNHCR's $2 million annual program aimed at strengthening Colombia's ability to deal with its huge internally displaced population.

4. Timor

In West Timor's provincial capital of Kupang, a large number of Timorese are leaving the camps and registering to repatriate. The higher numbers from Kupang camps are encouraging since as late as three weeks ago UNHCR had been moving people out of these sites a few people at a time. Refugees say that information they have received about the situation in East Timor through UNHCR's mass information campaign and the waning power of the militias has prompted many to come forward. Saturday morning 462 people returned to Dili by ship. A similar number are expected to disembark Wednesday in Dili when the ship completes its second rotation, as around 600 refugees had already gathered in Kupang's Fatululi transit center by Tuesday morning.

At the same time, visits by a Timorese returnee and UNHCR staff to a refugee shelter in Sydney, Australia, have apparently swayed a good number of people there. Nineteen came home by air yesterday (Monday) from Australia (via Darwin) and 98 more have signed up for repatriation and will be flown directly to East Timor from Sydney on Wednesday, 12 January. More Timorese are expected to register for return in the coming days.

Over 300 of the approximately 750 Timorese remaining in Australia after the September evacuations are free to travel immediately, while others are still receiving medical care or are their family members.

Eighty Timorese families in Kefa's Nain camp who had registered for repatriation Monday to Oecussi through the Bobometo crossing changed their mind at the last minute. They cited persistent rumors of insecurity in the enclave, including the alleged rape of a returnee in December. Hundreds of Timorese had continued to repatriate to Oecussi without incident until Monday's cancellation. UNHCR staff and authorities on both sides of the border are looking into allegations and rumors. As of yesterday (10 January), a total of 127,654 people had returned to East Timor.

5. Angolans in Zambia

The number of Angolan refugees arriving in Western Zambia has swelled significantly in the last week following intensified fighting in Angola's Cuando-Cubango province between UNITA rebels and Angolan government forces.

Since January 1, over 7,500 Angolan refugees have arrived in Sijembela, some 5 kms from the Angolan/Zambian border. The refugees, mainly women and children, arrived on foot from the Luiana and Jamba areas of Angola. They are in poor health with several cases of diarrhoea, malaria and skin diseases. Some refugees have gunshot wounds.

The new arrivals are currently being sheltered in schools and other government facilities in the remote and difficult-to-access area, about 250 kms from the south-western town of Senanga. UNHCR is immediately opening a transit centre in Sijembela pending the transfer of the more than 7,000 refugees to Mayukwayukwa camp, already home to over 6,000 refugees, mainly from Angola.

The transfer to Mayukwayukwa may, however, be delayed for four-five months because of the rainy season, which has rendered the roads to the camp impassable. As a result, UNHCR is also considering opening a new camp to shelter the over 7,000 new arrivals in Sijembela and another 5,500 currently in Kalabo, north of Sijembela.

Since October when the fighting between Angolan government forces and UNITA rebels intensified, a total of 20,500 refugees have gone into neighbouring Zambia, which already hosts over 200,000 refugees from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia.

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