KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – The last 81 of 120,000 Congolese refugees were voluntarily repatriated back to the DRC on July 30. These 120,000 Congolese had been refugees in the neighboring Republic of Congo for the past five years.
Repatriation is a challenging, but crucial operation to post-conflict rebuilding activities. It can be extremely difficult to reintegrate refugees who wish to return to their homes. The country that returnees come back to is not the same as when they left due to the conflict that displaced them. Arguments surrounding land rights are some of the most common problems as other people within the country may have settled on a land in the returnees absence that a returnee called home before leaving. Successful reintegration requires the involvement of the government, the UNHCR and various other humanitarian agencies to ensure the area does not devolve back into conflict because of the refugees’ return.
The 120,000 Congolese refugees were in exile in the Republic of Congo, dispersed along the Oubangui River that forms a border between the Republic of Congo and the DRC. In 2009, 160,000 Congolese fled to the Republic of Congo after conflict erupted over traditional fishing rights in the Northwest part of the DRC between the Munzaya and Enyele communities. In May 2012, the UNHCR began an operation to repatriate those who wished to return to the DRC.
The refugees travelled from Betou in the Republic of Congo to one of three cities in the Equateur province in the DRC, Siforco, Izato and Dongo. In these cities the UNHCR operated reception centers that provided services to help returnees reintegrate as smoothly as possible back into their local communities.
Returnees were provided with “identity documents, information on reintegration assistance, HIV/AIDS awareness training and medical help” while at the reception centers, according to the UNHCR. Returnees also received a cash transfer to help them settle at home and were given access to a variety of reintegration programs that provided “health-care, education, shelter-kits, income generation programs and drilling of boreholes for water” once they reached their former home communities.
While the area is currently peaceful, the UNHCR is concerned about the fragile stability of this peace in a country that has been prone to internal conflict for decades. In order to maintain and strengthen the current peace, the UNHCR also conducts awareness campaigns such as a radio station in Dongo intended to promote peaceful coexistence between communities that are potentially at greatest risk of falling back into conflict.
With the 81 refugees returned in July, the UNHCR has repatriated 5,079 Congolese refugees from the Republic of Congo to areas in the Equateur province which puts the total number of returnees in the region at 131,964 since the operation began in May 2012.
The UNHCR now has plans to begin repatriating Congolese refugees in Uganda that wish to go home. The governments of Uganda and the DRC and the UNHCR began discussing this process in April 2014. More and more Congolese have expressed the desire to go home, according to the Ugandan government, now that the Congolese security forces in conjunction with the U.N. Intervention Brigade have demobilized insurgent groups like the M23 that have been wreaking havoc in Eastern Congo in recent years. The joint force is currently working on demobilizing the Ugandan Islamist rebel group, ADF-NALU.
– Erin Sullivan