UNHCR in DR Congo is planning the first Congolese refugee return operation from Zambia to Katanga province, starting in May 2007. According to UNHCR spokesman Jens Hesemann, this will mark the start of a process in which up to 20,000 refugees could be repatriated to Katanga by the end of 2007.
61,000 Congolese are refugees in Zambian territory, with the majority living there since the outbreak of war in the DRC in 1998. UNHCR are now in the planning stages of the operation, which will receive logistical and technical support from MONUC.
UNHCR has already coordinated with the DRC government, MONUC and other UN agencies, as well as international and local NGO partners, and transit centres are now being set up in Pweto and Moba to cater for the refugees.
"Here they will stay for one or two days, where they will await transport to their villages of origin. They will also receive food rations and medical assistance whilst in the centres, as well as basic household kits so that they can start to rebuild their lives in the DRC," explained Mr. Hesemann.
Once they are transported to their home areas, the refugees will also receive some limited reintegration assistance, such as shelter construction kits. Mr. Hesemann further explained that some aspects of the operation are still being addressed.
"The tripartite commission of DRC, Zambia and UNHCR are working on the cross border legal issues involved in such an operation. Once these are resolved, the first movements will commence in May, using the same boats involved in the earlier returnee operation from Tanzania, the Mwongozo and the Niemba," he said.
Other aspects to be considered include the pressure that returnees will put on these areas, where much of the local population live in extreme poverty.
"UNHCR is not a development agency, but we are doing a lot of monitoring and advocacy so that other partners can engage. UNICEF will provide educational, wells and sanitation support, and we are in discussion with the FAO (Food and Agriculture organization), to provide seeds and tools to the returnees," Mr. Hesemann added.
This operation follows the first ever UNHCR led refugee returnee operation into Katanga province from Tanzania two weeks ago, where 494 Congolese made their way home across Lake Tanganika.