Burundi + 7 more

JRS Dispatches No. 246

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News and Press Release
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REFUGEE NEWS BRIEFINGS

1. BURUNDI: GAINING ACCESS TO LAND DIFFICULT FOR RETURNEES

According to the UN news agency, IRIN, on 6 October, thousands of returnees are finding it difficult to find shelter and agricultural land.

According to the agency, 15% of the former refugees, who were in exile in Tanzania for years and returned this year, are homeless. In mid-August, some 1,200 returnees were stranded in the southern province of Makamba, waiting to be resettled. Almost two months later, only 200 had been resettled in nearby Gitara by the government, while the others were still living in temporary sites.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has assisted approximately 450,000 Burundians to return home since 2002, principally from Tanzania. So far this year, some 75,000 have returned, after the Tanzanian government decided to close the camps by next December. There are still an estimated 280,000 Burundians in Tanzania.

While some had been away for more than 30 years, others had never seen their homeland, having been born in exile. Many, however, have come back to find their houses destroyed or occupied by other people. Finding land to resettle the returnees is a big concern for the government.

Last December, the national land commission conducted a survey to identify available land or land belonging to the state in the hands of individuals. It revealed that just 4,500 people, mostly returnees, had been resettled.

While efforts are being made to address the problem of shelter, land remains a key challenge. After more than a decade of civil war, land disputes are increasingly at the root of serious crimes in a country where more than 100,000 illegal weapons are in the possession of civilians. Since 4 October, the national land commission, established in 2006, has registered 11,200 land disputes and solved 2,279. Nevertheless, land disputes frequently end out in violence.

Since 2007, JRS Burundi has been actively supporting returnees and the local population in Muyinga, Ruyigi and Rutana provinces, which host particularly large numbers of returned refugees.

These JRS food security programmes assist the development of sustainable livelihoods in a country where approximately 90% of the population depends on subsistence agriculture. Beneficiaries receive training in organic farming and soil fertility improvement techniques. Using the principle of 'chain solidarity', they are subsequently provided with goats or cows. Each farmer who receives an animal must in turn give one to another beneficiary, ensuring the programmes' sustainability.

2. DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (DRC): SEVERE HUMANITARIAN CRISIS LOOMS

After more than a week of tense silence, renewed fighting between the rebels loyal to Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army resumed on 6 October, aggravating the humanitarian crisis in the eastern province of North Kivu.

Aid agencies estimate the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to be as many as one million. A full-scale war has broken out between the rebel National Congress for People's Defence (CNDP) and the Congolese army in late August in spite of a ceasefire agreement signed in January.

On 8 October, the rebels managed to seize a Congolese army base in Rumangabo, 40km northeast of the North Kivu capital of Goma, including important amounts of ammunition and weapons. Due to the fighting, JRS was forced once again to interrupt its activities in Rutshuru where it supports primary education of displaced children.

"Our hearts wanted us to stay and accompany the people during these hard times as a sign of hope, but common sense obliged us to leave", JRS staff member, Juanjo Aguado SJ, described his inner struggle before leaving Ruthsuru.

"We got a glimpse of what it must be like for every family who decides to flee and what it means to have to decide between staying and trying to live a normal life, and leaving to be able to have a minimum amount of security", he continued. On their way back to Goma, JRS staff encountered many women with children carrying mattresses and belongings on their heads, with fear and despair written on their faces.

"A strong feeling of injustice took hold of our hearts." Fr Aguado added. One day after the seizure of the Rumangabo military base, the Congolese government called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and accused neighbouring Rwanda of fighting alongside Nkunda's rebels, sparking fears of an escalation of the conflict into a regional war. The Rwandan government immediately denied any involvement. The UN peacekeepers, MONUC, have not been able yet to verify these claims.

However, on 10 October, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he was following the developments with "increasing concern" and called on "all states in the region to prevent their territories and nationals from being used to aid armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo".

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating and human rights continue to be violated. According to the medical group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-France), armed groups have been on the rampage, looting the belongings of fleeing civilians. Access to displaced persons is being hampered by the volatile security situation. A provincial medical inspector reported that in Masisi district more than 300 people have been infected and at least 37 killed by an outbreak of diarrhoea due to the lack of basic hygiene in IDP camps.

Furthermore, MONUC and human rights agencies have registered a renewed outbreak in child recruitment by the CNDP. On 11 October, UN peacekeepers freed 13 children who had been forcibly taken by the rebels. In a report published on 29 September, Amnesty International (AI) estimated that for every two children released, five are forcibly recruited. AI found further that 50% of demobilised child soldiers have been recruited again.

3. DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (DRC): VIOLENCE IN THE NORTHEAST DISPLACES 90,000

In September, two new fronts of fighting have opened, displacing at least 90,000 people in the northeastern Province Orientale which borders with Uganda and Sudan.

Between 17 and 26 September, the Ugandan rebel group LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) attacked at least eight villages near the town of Dungu. On a second front, a newly formed rebel group, the Front Populaire pour la Justice au Congo (FPJC), took up arms against the Congolese army in the eastern district of Ituri, near its capital Bunia on 29 September.

The LRA attacks caused the deaths of approximately 100 civilians and forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to an assessment by UN refugee agency (UNHCR), published on 14 October.

UNHCR further estimates that at least 5,000 Congolese have sought shelter in neighbouring Sudan with some 150 civilians still crossing the frontier daily. Access to displaced persons is hindered by the volatile security situation and a poor roads infrastructure in Sudan and the DRC.

Earlier, the UN children's agency (UNICEF) accused the rebels of abducting 90 children from schools. UNICEF fears that these children will be used as soldiers by LRA rebels, known for their appalling practices in northern Uganda.

The violence in Ituri district displaced more than 40,000 civilians. After the FPJC rebels caused government forces to retreat, they went on to loot and raid nearby villages. As in the other areas, aid agencies have faced difficulties reaching displaced persons, forcing many to sleep rough without medical assistance or food supplies.

Contrary to its troubled neighbouring North Kivu province, the situation in Ituri district had been improving since 2004. After complex interethnic tensions in 2003, many displaced persons had returned home. Last July, UNHCR had expressed hopes of closing its assisted return programme in Ituri by the end of the year.

4. SOUTH AFRICA: CAMP CLOSURE CAUSES CONFUSION AND DESTITUTION

On 10 October, Tshwane (Pretoria) Faith Forum condemned the dismantling of Klerksoord refugee camp in the north of the city.

The Forum, which comprises various churches and church-based organisations, including JRS South Africa, was established a few months ago to monitor the protection of refugees and victims of xenophobic attacks sheltered in different camps in Pretoria.

"JRS has been responding to the needs of the migrants and refugees in the camps since the outbreak of xenophobic violence in May. We believe that the removal of tents on 6 October was conducted in a less than dignified manner. Initially many of the camp residents were not interested in seeking assistance in the belief that they would be resettled to a third country. However, our offices are currently full due to the uncoordinated closure of camps", JRS South Africa Director, Gerard Shavatu, told Dispatches on 15 October.

"The government had decided to close all the camps in Gauteng province on the grounds that South Africa has a "no camp" policy and in spite of the consequences it focuses on the reintegration of asylum seekers and refugees into the local community", added Mr Shavatu.

The Forum stated it believed that the reintegration of refugees and migrants into their respective communities was not being carried out properly. Rather, it added, they were being "forced" back into communities. According to statements by Forum leaders, the groups were not told beforehand that Klerksoord camp would be closed.

Shelters were opened in May when a wave of xenophobic violence swept through the province claiming 62 lives, leaving hundreds injured and tens of thousands of foreign nationals displaced. The Constitutional Court recently ordered that the shelters stay open until 30 September. The judgment was intended to give time to government officials and the refugees' legal representatives to find solutions for those who would otherwise be made homeless.

Since the establishment of Klerksoord camp, JRS has assisted refugees and migrants to register as displaced with the authorities, as well as provide financial assistance of between 160 US dollars and 320 US dollars to those seeking private accommodation.

On 15 October, in the southern Cape province, the authorities announced that Harmony Park would be closed within two days. Civil society groups expect chaos and homelessness to follow for the 250 asylum seekers currently residing in the camp. The authorities added that two more camps, Youngsfield and Bluewaters, will close by the end of the month. Approximately 2,000 individuals will be affected the closures. The provincial authorities stated that they are working to provide unresolved cases with viable options.

5. CHAD: USE OF CHILDREN IN ARMED ACTIVITIES CONTINUES

From 16 to 20 September, a committee of officials from the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF) and Chadian ministries visited two military training centres in the west of the country.

These visits form part of plans to inspect some 17 sites throughout the country, marking what human rights advocates hope is a turning point in the fight against the use of children in armed groups. However, access to Farcha and Gaci sites, reportedly holding dozens of children in N'Djamena, has not yet been granted.

No children were found in the Loumia centre, while only one child was withdrawn from the Moussouro centre. The child identified in Moussouro had previously been entered into a demobilisation and reintegration programme and was subsequently forced by his father to rejoin the army. He has been re-accepted at a transit and orientation centre. In June, 15 children were withdrawn from the Loumia military centre.

Unfortunately, observers believe the Chadian government, opposition forces, and foreign rebel groups continue to recruit minors. Last June, a report by the advocacy group, Human Rights Watch documented numerous allegations of child recruitment by the Chadian military in camps for internally displaced persons throughout eastern Chad. A month later, a UN Security Council report noted that little progress has been made to address violations against children in Chad.

An absence of education and employment opportunities often lead to children becoming involved in armed activities. In response, JRS supports education programmes in 12 refugee camps and 13 schools for displaced Chadians in the east of the country. Since 2007, JRS has helped rehabilitate and reunite more than 148 militarised children with their families throughout eastern Chad in cooperation with the government, UNICEF, and other NGOs.

"JRS welcomes this initiative and encourages the Chadian state to support education and protection mechanisms for the sustainable reintegration of children into society", JRS Communications Officer, Ashley Gagné, told Dispatches on 14 October.

Last May, the Chadian government signed an agreement with UNICEF to release all children in its ranks. In July, the government authorised the establishment of an ad-hoc committee to verify the absence of children from within its ranks, as well as to discourage officers from recruiting minors. The committee was established at the request of the UN children's agency (UNICEF), following the intervention of UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy.

Approximately 500 boys, out of as many as 10,000 children in the country have been released, the vast majority of whom were members of a rebel faction integrated into the national army under the auspices of a peace accord. Yet, adolescents in military uniform are still frequently seen in N'djamena, the capital, and the countryside. Girls have also been observed with armed groups in the eastern region of Guéréda. To date, no girls have been officially freed from armed groups.

6. C=D4TE D'IVOIRE: REBELS CALL FOR ELECTIONS TO BE POSTPONED

On 12 October, the rebel group, New Forces, urged the electoral authorities to postpone the forthcoming presidential elections, planned for 30 November, due to delays in voter registration and the demobilisation of civil war combatants. The ballot, in which President Laurent Gbagbo is expected to stand for re-election, is the result of a peace deal he signed last year with the rebels, who have controlled the north of the country since 2002.

Given the lack of progress in voter identification and delays in the programmes to demobilise thousands of former rebel fighters and pro-government militia, most analysts believe it is unlikely the poll will be held on time.

The rebel leader and prime minister, Guillaume Soro, and the president Gbagbo are due to meet at the end of this month to make a decision on whether or not the election can be held on 30 November. The President of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, who helped mediate the 2007 peace deal, will also be present at the meeting.

After a weekend seminar at their stronghold of Bouake, New Forces rebels military and civilian leaders cited the slow pace of voter registration and the absence of adequate security at voter enrolment centres as impediments to the November vote. They did not suggest a new date for the vote.

Rebel combatants are believed to be impatient about the slow pace of their demobilisation payments. In recent months, a number of large demonstrations have been held in rebel territory, raising fears of renewed unrest and violence threatening the peace agreement.

Approximately 26,000 former combatants are awaiting demobilisation incentives.

10. AMERICAS: COLOMBIANS IN PRECARIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES IN ECUADOR

"In Ecuador, there are no camps where refugees can find support and safety. The majority of Colombian refugees live scattered throughout the country, without access to education, healthcare or jobs. The country's asylum system lacks the capacity to support the growing numbers crossing the Colombian-Ecuadorian border".

This is the message of the JRS USA Director in the latest issue of their magazine The Refugee Voice, published on 1 October.

Immediately following the well-publicised Colombian military offensive into Ecuadorian territory in March 2008, JRS Ecuador invited staff from JRS USA to interview refugees to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis that had been overshadowed by the diplomatic standoff.

JRS staff consulted with NGO partners, advocates, local officials from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and Ecuadorian government officials in Quito and places along the Colombian-Ecuadorian, including Lago Agrio and San Lorenzo. The interviews revealed profound issues of xenophobia and a failure to integrate refugees into Ecuadorian society. Large numbers of Colombian refugees in Ecuador are not registered and live without security in the border regions, creating problems exacerbated by funding shortages. Trafficking and sexual exploitation of refugee women was a recurrent theme mentioned by many of those interviewed.

Of those Colombians who have fled to Ecuador, only 18,000 have been officially recognised as refugees, leaving more than 230,000 others in need of legal protection.

For a detailed exploration of the accounts of circumstances in which Colombian refugees live in Ecuador and a list of recommendations to improve their lives, see http://www.jrsusa.org/voice/2=5F3/ref=5Fvoice=5F2-3=5Fp1.html

For a report on JRS work with Colombian refugees in Venezuela, see www.jrs.net/reports

JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, CP 6139, 00195 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39-06 689.77.386; Fax: +39-06 688 06 418; Email: dispatches@jrs.net; JRS on-line: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Simonetta Russo (Italian). To subscribe or unsubscribe to Dispatches go to http://www.jrs.net/lists/manage.php