The accord, signed in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, follows the repatriation to date of more than 23,000 Rwandan refugees living in camps in Tanzania.
The UN refugee agency said its office in Zambia would immediately begin preparing profiles of the more than 5,000 Rwandan refugees in Zambian camps, including their areas of origin, ahead of the airlift to Rwanda, expected to begin in April.
UNHCR also said it would launch an information campaign in Zambian camps where many of the refugees are located, to inform them of plans being made for their return home. In this vein, a technical working group that met on Thursday recommended that a delegation of the Rwandan government and recent returnees visit Zambia before the end of March to speak to refugees about the situation in their home districts.
In the meantime, UNHCR is collecting data on other Rwandan refugees in countries throughout Africa, to be used for an appeal to donors for funds to facilitate organised repatriation movements, returnee monitoring and reintegration of Rwandans. An estimated 60,000 Rwandan refugees are scattered across many countries in Africa, the UNHCR says.
Speaking at the Kigali meeting, UNHCR's Regional Coordinator for the Great Lakes region, Wairimu Karago, expressed hope that the agreement would "reflect the legitimate wishes of the refugees to return home in safety and dignity", as well as act as the blueprint for other tripartite arrangements for the voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees.
She said that UNHCR had changed its policy from merely facilitating to actively promoting voluntary repatriation to Rwanda, adding that this policy would be harmonised and implemented across African in a consistent manner.
Karago said that concrete steps that the Rwandan government had taken to ensure that conditions were conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees had vindicated this change in policy. As an example, she cited the recent release from custody of 40,000 persons facing various allegations connected to the 1994 genocide and the commitment by Rwandan authorities to implement, judiciously, the process of the Gacaca traditional court system.
UNHCR said that it expected to sign more agreements with Rwanda and countries hosting Rwandan refugees in Africa.
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