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UNHCR briefing notes: Panama, Burundi, West Africa

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Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) PANAMA

According to reports from UNHCR's partners in the area, 472 Panamanian indigenous people, including 324 children, fled in search of protection to Boca de Cupe in the Central Darien region of Panama this week after their villages were attacked by Colombian paramilitaries. The displaced people reportedly began returning to their villages yesterday afternoon with the assistance of the police and military forces. Four Indigenous community leaders were reportedly killed during the attack last weekend. Three foreign journalists were also kidnapped. The villages attacked are inhabited by indigenous Kuna people and are located along the Paya and Pucuro rivers, a few kilometres from the Colombian border in what is considered one of the world's most inaccessible regions.

The attack signals the growing impact of the Colombian conflict on Panama and other countries neighbouring Colombia. In a letter to the Panamanian government, UNHCR expressed its concern at these events and its solidarity with the affected population. A UNHCR implementing partner, the Vicariato del Darien, is present in Boca de Cupe and is helping coordinate the emergency relief efforts, together with UNICEF and the Panamanian Red Cross. UNHCR is contributing to improve the water system in Boca de Cupe in order to respond to increased needs and made its stock of basic emergency assistance kits available. An assessment mission by UNHCR staff to the area is expected to take place in the next few days.

Panama hosts 1,515 registered refugees and persons under a special humanitarian protection status, many of them in the Darien region. The majority of them are Colombian citizens.

2) BURUNDI

More than 353 Burundian refugees were yesterday (Thursday) repatriated to northern Burundi despite reports of intense fighting that has displaced an estimated 40,000 - 60,000 people in Gitega, central Burundi. Many of the refugees on yesterday's convoy from Ngara, north-western Tanzania said they were aware of the upsurge in fighting between rebels and government troops in Gitega but were confident of their safety in villages in the north of the country.

UNHCR has a maintained a policy to assist returns only to the relatively safe northern region of Burundi. Under an agreement reached at a tripartite meeting between the governments of Burundi and Tanzania early last year, UNHCR transports returnees mainly from camps in Ngara, Tanzania. They pass through one of two transit centres (Songore and Mugano), both in Muyinga province, and on to drop-off points close to their villages of origin.

The five-truck convoy from Ngara crossed the border yesterday at the Kobero border crossing, taking returnees to the transit centre at Mugano. Here, the returnees received a return package consisting of food and domestic supplies before continuing to their villages. In one village, some 13 kms from the transit centre, returnees were received by waiting villagers, many of them recent returnees from camps in Tanzania. Some of the returnees say they left their war-ravaged country in 1993 following the unrest which followed the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye. Yesterday's repatriation brings the total number of returns organised by UNHCR from Tanzania to Burundi this year to 2,418.

3) DEPUTY HIGH COMMISSIONER ENDS WEST AFRICA TRIP

Deputy High Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch today (Friday) visited 183 predominantly Liberian refugees, including 73 children, who have been living in a collective centre in Abidjan since September, when their homes in the city's shantytowns were razed by Ivorian security forces.

Ms. Wyrsch told the refugees she was concerned about their safety and the general situation in Côte d'Ivoire. She also reiterated a call for refugees to stay out of the conflict and top resist attempts to recruit them. There have been reports of recruitment of Liberian refugees by the warring parties, particularly in western regions of the country where there has been fighting since mid-November. Later today, Ms. Wyrsch was scheduled to meet with Côte d'Ivoire's foreign minister, as well as members of the diplomatic corps, humanitarian community representatives and UNHCR staff, before wrapping up her 11-day tour of West Africa.

On Thursday, she also met with the First Lady, Mme Simone Gbagbo. Earlier in the day, Ms. Wyrsch visited the VOA camp for Sierra Leonean refugees, near Monrovia and encouraged them to go home. She mentioned the upbeat spirit she had witnessed among the returnees in the Kailahun district, in eastern Sierra Leone, which she visited on Monday. UNHCR recently started promoting return to Sierra Leone as part of a strategy to find solutions for an estimated 100,000 Sierra Leoneans still refugees in the region. An estimated 17,500 Sierra Leonean refugees remain in Liberia.

The Deputy High Commissioner returns to Geneva on Sunday.