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UNHCR briefing notes: Rwanda/Zambia, West Africa

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Ron Redmond - 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) NORTH KOREANS IN CHINA

UNHCR has asked the Chinese government for access to a group of 48 North Korean asylum seekers, including children, arrested last Saturday as they tried to board fishing boats in the port of Yantai, Shandong Province. In a note verbale sent to the Chinese authorities in Beijing today (Tuesday), UNHCR also urged China not to send the North Koreans back to their country.

The note says "the (UNHCR) office would furthermore be grateful to receive the government's assurances, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, that the protection and humanitarian needs of these asylum seekers are met and in particular that they are not refouled to their country of origin." UNHCR is ready to assess the asylum claims of the group jointly with the Chinese authorities.

2) RETURN OF RWANDANS FROM ZAMBIA

UNHCR is making arrangements for the voluntary return of more than 5,000 Rwandan refugees living in camps in Zambia following the signing last Thursday of a return agreement between the two governments and UNHCR. The agreement, reached in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is the first in a series to be signed this year with the government of Rwanda and countries hosting Rwandan refugees. It comes as UNHCR shifts its repatriation policy to Rwanda from mere facilitation to active promotion of return.

In preparation for the return operation from Zambia, expected to begin in April, UNHCR will launch an information campaign to inform refugees of plans being made for their return home. They will be told of travel arrangements, return packages and re-integration assistance inside Rwanda. All of these are now being worked out with both governments. The information campaign will be immediately followed by a registration of refugees who are willing to return home. Those wishing to return will be required to sign voluntary repatriation forms to confirm that their decision to return is voluntary. A majority of Rwandan refugees in Zambia are living in Meheba and Mayukwayukwa camps in the west. There are also smaller numbers in urban centres in the country.

Under the terms of the agreement signed in Kigali last week, the information campaign should culminate in a visit to refugee camps in Zambia by a delegation of Rwandan government officials and recent returnees. The delegation will speak to refugees about conditions prevailing in Rwanda. It is hoped that their visit before the end of March will build confidence among the refugees. Another delegation consisting of Zambian government officials and Rwandan refugee leaders is also expected to travel to Rwanda during the same period to acquaint refugee leaders of the prevailing situation in their areas of origin.

Many of the Rwandan refugees arrived in Zambia more than seven years ago in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide which left an estimated half a million people dead and displaced another 2 million into neighbouring countries. Nearly all the displaced have since returned to their homes in Rwanda, aside from an estimated 60,000 scattered across various countries throughout the African continent.

3) WEST AFRICA

Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Mary Ann Wyrsch is in Freetown, Sierra Leone, today as part of an 11-day tour which has already taken her to Guinea and Sierra Leone's rural areas. She heads for Liberia on Wednesday and Côte d'Ivoire on Thursday.

On a two-day visit to UNHCR operations in inland areas of Sierra Leone, Ms. Wyrsch said she was impressed with the progress made despite a lack of resources. She visited Jimmy Bagbo and Largo refugee camps for Liberian refugees. She also spent some time in the town of Kenema and Nyandehu village to view the successful reintegration activities for returned Sierra Leoneans.

She is scheduled to meet with President Ahmed Kabbah today.

During the last months of 2002, UNHCR was forced to halt the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans because of funding problems. The repatriation resumed late last year.

Sierra Leone suffered severely during 11 years of war and refugee return and reintegration is still difficult in some areas. This is particularly true in Kailahun and Kono, two eastern districts that suffered enormous destruction. UNHCR is assisting a majority of some 200,000 returned Sierra Leoneans who had been refugees in Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and other West African countries,

There are still more than 100,000 Sierra Leonean refugees scattered around the region. UNHCR is planning to assist as many of them as possible in returning this year. At the same time, however, the ongoing conflict in Liberia continues driving thousands of refugees in need of assistance into Sierra Leone and Guinea.

From Thursday to Sunday, Ms.Wyrsch visited Guinea, where she met with senior government officials, UNHCR's local counterparts, the UN and NGO community, as well as refugee and community leaders. She expressed deep appreciation to the Guinean government for having hosted refugees for many years. The recent crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has once again put an additional strain on Guinea's already fragile economy, but the borders have nevertheless remained open for civilians in need.

Guinea is presently hosting over 190,000 refugees, mainly Liberians (116,000) and Sierra Leoneans (73,000).

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues with the emergency return of Liberian refugees from Tabou, in southwestern Côte d'Ivoire, to Liberia's Maryland county. Between Friday, when the operation got off to a bumpy start, and Monday this week, close to 300 Liberians were able to cross the Cavaly river back home. Another group of 150 was scheduled to leave today. UNHCR will continue running daily convoys from Tabou to the river and across the river by boat. It is also trying to increase the pace of returns as the number of candidates for return has now reached 3,000. Please check our web site for two detailed stories on the returns from Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire.

4) WOMEN IN CONFLICT

UNIFEM is launching a report prepared by the Independent Panel of Experts on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and the Role of Women in Peace-building. The report will be launched by UNIFEM's Executive Director, Ms. Noeleen Hezyer and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers. Journalists are invited to the launch which will take place at UNHCR tomorrow, Wednesday 22 Jan., from 11.30 a.m. - 1.00 p.m. Briefing material is available at the back of the room.