UNHCR briefing notes: Uganda/Rwanda, Ethiopia/Sudan, Chad, Liberia

Report
from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 16 Jan 2004
Briefer: 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. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.

1) UGANDA / RWANDA

A first group of Rwandan returnees is set to leave Uganda on Monday (19 Jan.) in a return operation organised by UNHCR and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda to assist the voluntary repatriation of some 23,000 Rwandan refugees living in settlements in the Mbarara district of south-western Uganda. This voluntary movement is part of a much wider effort in several African nations to help the region's remaining Rwandan refugees go home and rebuild their lives. In mid-2003, there were an estimated 60,000 Rwandan refugees scattered throughout several African countries. The start of the return operation from Uganda is the outcome of a tripartite agreement signed between the governments of Uganda and Rwanda and UNHCR in July 2003.

Monday's five-truck convoy is expected to repatriate a first group of 200 refugees from Nakivale -- one of three settlements hosting Rwandan refugees in Uganda. The other two settlements are Kyakka and Oruchinga. The returnees are part of a group of 1,165 Rwandan refugees who have registered with UNHCR for repatriation assistance to various parts of Rwanda.

Returnee convoys are expected to travel from the settlements to Mbarara and on to the Gatuna crossing, some 300 kms away. Gatuna is on the border between Uganda and Rwanda. Returnees will be transported to a transit facility which has been established close to the north-eastern town of Byumba. Here, they will receive a re-integration package consisting of basic kitchen utensils, plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, jerry cans and soap. Some of the returnees will be transported by UNHCR trucks from the transit centre to their home areas or to the nearest location. Other returnees will receive transport assistance via commercial vehicles.

A profile of the Rwandan refugee population in Uganda shows that the refugees are from all areas of Rwanda. The largest number is, however, from the eastern areas of Kibungo and Utarama, which borders the Akagera National Park in the north-east of the country. Other refugees are from Gisenyi and Ruhengeri (north-west), Gitarama, (central) Kibuye, (west), Gikongoro and Butare (south).

The start of the return operation from Uganda and Rwanda next Monday follows a one-day tripartite meeting held between the governments of Uganda and Rwanda, and UNHCR on Jan. 7 to finalise plans for the operation. It is expected to be one of the last major return movements of Rwandan refugees remaining outside their country. The meeting held in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, was followed by a visit of Rwandan and Ugandan officials to the refugee settlements in Mbarara district on 8 Jan. The visiting Rwandan officials assured the refugees that upon their return home, they will either get back their own land or will be allocated plots that can support their families.

Elsewhere in Africa, UNHCR and host governments are making efforts to encourage Rwandan refugees to return home. In Zambia, a meeting held in the capital, Lusaka, on 9 Jan. between Zambian authorities and UNHCR resolved to send a team consisting of Rwandan refugee leaders, senior Zambian government officials, parliamentarians and UNHCR staff on a go-and-see-visit to Rwanda in early March 2004. The planned go-and-see visit is part of an information campaign aimed at encouraging the return of some 5,700 Rwandan refugees still in Zambia. An information campaign has also been launched in Tongogara camp in Zimbabwe where there are more than 3,500 Rwandan refugees.

In 2003, UNHCR and the government of Rwanda signed seven agreements for the return of Rwandan refugees currently in various countries in Africa, including Zambia (Jan.), Republic of Congo (June), Uganda (July), Malawi (Nov.), Namibia (Nov.), Mozambique (Dec.) and Zimbabwe (Dec). The agreements signed in 2003 are in addition to others established earlier with the Central African Republic, Tanzania and Burundi.

In 2003, a total of 19,712 Rwandan refugees returned home from various countries, the majority of them with UNHCR assistance. Of this number, some 14,981 Rwandan refugees were assisted by UNHCR to return home from the Democratic Republic of Congo -- 8,214 returned home through Goma in eastern Kivu while 6,767 were assisted to return through Bukavu, on the southern shores of Lake Kivu. Other refugees returned from Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia, Uganda and Republic of Congo.

2) ETHIOPIA / SUDAN

Two UNHCR staff are part of a nine-person team that has traveled to the town of Pochalla in southern Sudan to investigate reports that thousands of Ethiopian and Sudanese Anuaks are fleeing across the border to escape violence in western Ethiopia. The team reported this morning that they have seen people crossing the border, most of them young males. Residents say some 100-200 people are arriving daily. They report walking for a week or more to reach the border and appear to be in reasonably good health. However, they are arriving with no possessions, not even to carry water. There are some children, women and elderly, but most are young men aged between 14-25. Local residents are providing some help to the new arrivals, who are also foraging in the countryside for food.

The team, which headed to the region yesterday, intends to spend two days in Pochalla on the Ethiopian border and will return tomorrow to Lokichoggio, Kenya. For its part, UNHCR is investigating the safety and protection needs of the recent arrivals - both refugees and returnees. Representatives of private aid agencies are looking into the health, sanitation and water needs of the Anuaks, while WFP will assess their food needs.

World Relief, a US-based NGO, is the only non-governmental organisation operating in Pochalla, and has been the main source of information about the Anuak influx. A World Relief official said earlier this week that between 100 and 300 Sudanese and Ethiopian Anuaks were arriving every day in Pochalla county in the Upper Nile region of southern Sudan. The total number of recent arrivals was reported to be 15,000, mostly in Pochalla town, where many were camped at a local school and church. For the time being, we're cautious about the figure of 15,000, which comes from local authorities. It is also unclear how many are Sudanese Anuaks who were refugees in Ethiopia and may now return to live with their relatives, and how many are Ethiopian Anuaks who have now become refugees in Sudan.

The Anuaks have reportedly been fleeing reprisals that followed killings in mid-December in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia. On December 13, eight people - including three officials of UNHCR's partner, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) - were brutally murdered in an ambush of a vehicle headed to Odier-Bol, in the Gambella area. In Gambella town, rioting broke out after the bodies were brought back, targeting members of the Anuak community, who were blamed for the attacks. Some 58 people were confirmed killed, and some 400 huts of the Anuaks were burned to the ground.

3) CHAD

The first UNHCR relocation movement of tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees scattered along the insecure Sudan-Chad border is scheduled to depart the Adre region of eastern Chad for a safer, inland camp at dawn tomorrow (Saturday). Some 200 people will be transported in five trucks and one bus to the new camp in Farchana, 55 kms from the border. Members of UNHCR's emergency team, which has been in Chad since December 30, traveled yesterday to Adre and are working closely with UNHCR staff already present in the area to prepare for tomorrow's scheduled movement. A second relocation convoy of approximately 200 people is scheduled for Monday. Similar transfers will be organized every other day for the next two weeks.

UNHCR and its partners started pre-registering refugees for the relocation yesterday. Over the past few weeks, UNHCR and its partners in the field have been carrying out a campaign to inform the refugees about the possibility of relocation to Farchana. Most refugees have indicated they want to move because it's safer away from the border. Refugees scattered in the border area in Chad have been the victims of periodic incursions by Sudanese militia.

Today, UNHCR and its local partner SECADEV (Secours Catholique) are distributing wristbands to each refugee scheduled to leave tomorrow. MSF-Holland will at the same time identify people needing special attention, such as women in their last months of pregnancy, unaccompanied children, elderly and sick people. These people will be transported to the camp by ambulance.

The convoy will depart at dawn tomorrow, and the trip is expected to take approximately three hours. UNHCR vehicles will lead the convoy, and the Chadian gendarmerie will provide an escort. The Chadian Red Cross will be responsible for assisting the refugees throughout the process. Red Cross first aid volunteers will help refugees to embark and will be present in the trucks to assist them during the journey. On arrival at the camp, the volunteers will guide the refugees through the different steps of the reception process up to their settling in their tent. The reception process will include a formal registration conducted by UNHCR and the governmental authority CNAR (Commission Nationale d'Accueil et de Reinsertion des Refugies), a medical screening by MSF-Holland and the distribution of food (sorghum, corn meal and oil) provided by WFP. In addition, UNHCR will give families blankets, mattresses, jerry cans, kitchen sets, soap, and hygiene items.

Livestock belonging to the refugees will be transferred separately. UNHCR and the refugees agreed that one member of each family will accompany the cattle from the site where they are currently staying to the new camp. It is anticipated that the journey by foot should take three days.

The camp in Farchana will have capacity for 9,000 to 12,000 refugees. In the near future, children will be able to start attending school in the camp. GTZ has been responsible for designing and building up the camp and has dug three wells in the nearby village which will supply water to the refugees until completion of well drilling inside the camp area itself.

An estimated 95,000 Sudanese have fled across the border to Chad since last March - 30,000 in December alone. They are scattered along a 600-km stretch of remote borderland in dozens of makeshift camps where they are still vulnerable to periodic incursions by militia from Sudan.

4) LIBERIA

UNHCR and other UN agencies and NGO partners yesterday carried out what we hope will be one of the last relocations in the Monrovia area, taking 690 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from three irregular shelters in the Montserrado area of Monrovia to five formal IDP camps near the capital. From some 2,000 people in the centers, 879 had registered for the relocation yesterday. On the date of departure, however, only 690 actually showed up and were taken to the IDP camps.

We hope this will be one of the last large movements in an IDP relocation operation mounted by UN agencies last September to help decongest the city of Monrovia. However, some displaced people continue to seek shelter in public buildings in the capital, leading to new requests for assistance. The relocation operation has been under way since September to help IDPs who had fled to safety in Monrovia, temporarily occupying schools and other essential public facilities. They are being taken to official IDP centers, where they are able to receive regular assistance.

Many of the occupants at these irregular shelters were not genuine IDPs but residents of the area who pretended to be displaced to take advantage of benefits offered by humanitarian agencies. During the latest relocation exercise, it was once again observed that many of them spontaneously left the centers for their homes in nearby communities, while others from more distant areas hired commercial vehicles to leave the centers.

UNHCR provided 20 trucks and two ambulances to transport the IDPs to Ricks, Siegbeh, Perry Town, Blamasee and Unification IDP camps. UNHCR security staff and UNMIL soldiers were present to ensure security during the transfer of the IDPs. It is customary that UNHCR distributes non-food items to the newly relocated IDPs, including mats, blankets and kitchen sets. Prior to the relocation exercise, massive preparation work included shelter construction, transfer of IDPs recently relocated and still occupying the much-needed transit centers, to regular shelters within the IDP camps, and upgrade of facilities like water and sanitation, in order to enhance the camps' absorption capacity.

Meanwhile, a group of Sierra Leonean refugees was repatriated by air to Freetown, Sierra Leone, yesterday (Thursday). A group of 37 Sierra Leonean refugees boarded a commercial flight to Freetown, escorted and assisted by UNHCR and medical staff at both ends. We hope that repatriation by land will resume as soon UN peacekeepers deploy in Bomi County and begin patrols in the Monrovia / Bo-Waterside area, through which the road used for return convoys passes. In 2003, UNHCR Liberia repatriated over 4,083 Sierra Leonean refugees. The operation will continue until June 2004. UNHCR is continuing information campaigns to promote returns to Sierra Leone among the estimated 13,000 Sierra Leoneans remaining in camps in Liberia.

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