LIBREVILLE, 16 March 2000 (IRIN) - Despite end-of-year ceasefire accords and follow-up meetings between political forces from the Republic of Congo, neighbouring Gabon is likely to continue hosting Congolese refugees for some time yet, humanitarian sources in Libreville told IRIN.
While there were reports from Congo that some internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned to their home areas in recent months, sources at the Libreville office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at the end of February they had not received requests for voluntary repatriation from Congolese refugees.
The fact that the ceasefire has been signed does not mean that the refugees will immediately return home, UNHCR's Aisha Buruku told IRIN. "Obviously they have to have their own sources of information on how the situation is on the other side before they go back," said Buruku, who headed the UNHCR office in Libreville until late February.
Sylvia Novel, programme director in Gabon for the international (NGO) Handicap International, explained that the accords were only signed on 29 December and were still not quite stable. "I think it will take about a year" before significant numbers of people go back, said Novel, whose NGO is UNHCR's partner on the ground in Gabon.
Congolese refugees started going to Gabon in significant numbers in mid-1999, at the height of fighting between the Congolese military and militia groups loyal to ousted president Pascal Lissouba and former mayor of Brazzaville Bernard Kolelas.
That was the latest in a string of upheavals in the Central African nation where thousands of people were displaced in 1993/1994 when an election dispute led to fighting between militia groups at the service of the country's politicians.
Clashes again broke out in 1997, following an attempt by government forces to arrest militiamen loyal to then opposition leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso.
The clashes developed into a war that devastated Brazzaville, sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from the capital to their home regions or to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and ended with Lissouba's overthrow by Sassou-Nguesso's forces.
Militias supporting Lissouba and Kolelas later waged a guerrilla war against Sassou-Nguesso's government which gained in intensity last year before the December peace accords brought a halt to the bulk of the fighting.
Against this background, the refugees in Gabon have decided to wait and see what happens. "Few people trust the political leaders who have waged three civil wars in such a short period of time," one humanitarian source told IRIN. "They need to have concrete acts on the ground to believe them."
In the meantime, UNHCR and Handicap International have been trying to attend to the most urgent needs of what humanitarian officials in Gabon see as an under-reported refugee crisis. "I think that at the level of the international community it has not been given much coverage," Novel said.
The sources attribute this at least in part to the fact that, compared to other refugee situations, the numbers are low. About 13,500 refugees were registered in a census the Gabonese government and UNHCR conducted in November and December 1999 in Libreville and two provinces that have borders with Congo, Haut-Ogooue in the east and Nyanga in the southwest.
There were also about 1,500 people from
other countries such as Angola, Chad, DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda.
Congolese refugees in two other provinces, Ngounie and Ogooue-Lolo, are yet to be counted. UNHCR-Gabon estimates that there may be 3,000 to 4,000.
However, the Gabonese government believes the number of Congolese who have sought refuge in Gabon is much higher, Marc Adolphe Doumi-Mandatse, secretary-general of the Gabonese Foreign Ministry and chair of an inter-ministerial technical commission on the refugees told IRIN. "We are saying there are more than 30,000 since many of them are living with Gabonese families and have not registered for fear of deportation," he said.
Immediate priorities include ensuring that there is food for the refugees who, thus far, have received help from the local population and authorities in the host regions, embassies and UNHCR, which has diverted some household supplies from its programme in Liberia, according to a fact sheet produced by UNHCR on 10 February.
UNHCR-Gabon spent about US $1.0 million on an emergency programme for the refugees between July 1999 and February 2000 and has requested US $1.8 million from UNHCR Geneva for this year. This amount does not include food which is to be provided by the World Food Programme (WFP).
Food supplied to the refugees by the UNHCR and other sources ran out in mid-February and this caused concern within the humanitarian community, sources said.
The WFP has agreed to provide some 12,000 refugees with 1,200 mt of food for six months. Gabon's government last week used its own funds and money donated by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), la Francophonie, China and Korea to buy about US $137,000 worth of supplies for the refugees pending the distribution of the WFP food in early April.
Other priorities identified by UNHCR include improving medical care, vaccinating children and speeding up the installation of the refugees in sites in rural areas which have been identified with the authorities and are under construction. This would free up public and private buildings that refugees have been occupying.
The provision of education for all refugee children, whether through their inclusion in existing schools or by putting up parallel ones is another short-term target of UNHCR.
A key issue that needs to be resolved quickly is the provision of identity cards for the refugees. Those in Libreville have provisional certificates delivered by UNHCR which are recognised by the security forces. In Haut Ogooue and Nyanga, however, all they have are registration slips that have no photographs and the security forces do not always recognise them, according to the UNHCR fact sheet.
The government and UNHCR have agreed to give high priority to issuing identity cards for the refugees so as to provide them with foolproof protective documents, updating refugee-related legislation and completing the census in Ngounie and Ogooue-Lolo, according to UNHCR.
A seminar on refugee protection which
UNHCR held in the capital in November for officials and organisations involved
with refugees led to a marked improvement in the way the central authorities
have been tackling the issue, UNHCR said.
The UN agency aims to run similar seminars in the first half of this year in Nyanga and Haut Ogooue so as to make the local authorities and security forces more aware of refugee rights.
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