|30. April 2009
ZAMBIA-DRC: Free trip back home only 'til December
KALA REFUGEE CAMP, Thousands of Congolese who sought refuge in Zambia during years of fighting in their country have been warned that they have until the end of December to get a free trip back home.
Most refugees are reluctant to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), saying they feel it is not safe to go back because fighting continues in some parts of the country; others are waiting to harvest their maize crops in the two refugee camps, Kala and Mwange, where they are living in northern Zambia.
But the Zambian government seems to be losing its patience with the Congolese refugees. "God in His own wisdom gave you DRC as your country, and God is no longer in the process of creating more countries," Misheck Bonshe, Zambia's deputy minister of the interior, told refugees at Kala camp in Luapula Province, northern Zambia, this week.
"All the problems which made you leave your beautiful country are now over, and the safety of your return has now been guaranteed. Your own government has made arrangements for your safe return. You can no longer continue to stay in camps; this country belongs to Zambians."
All the problems which made you leave your beautiful country are now over, and the safety of your return has now been guaranteedYears of armed conflict in the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony forced thousands of Congolese to flee to neighbouring countries, but few have been upbeat about going home even though relative peace has returned to their country.
Zambia houses 45,307 Congolese refugees; of these, 28,591 reside in camps and settlements, 1,716 in urban areas, and an estimated 15,000 are self-settled. A total of 7,323 Congolese refugees were repatriated during 2007, and a further 9,692 went home in 2008.
In January 2009, about 18,549 camp-based Congolese refugees expressed willingness to repatriate, prompting the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to launch the final phase of the repatriation programme, which is expected to begin on 9 May 2009 and end in December. But, with barely a week before the project kicks off, only 129 have registered.
Bonshe said the Zambian government would close the two camps in northern Zambia, housing a total of 25,095 Congolese refugees from the Katanga Province districts of Tanganyika and Haut Katanga, in 2009.
He warned that the refugees who chose to remain and were still in Zambia by the end of the repatriation programme would lose protection and be subjected to the country's immigration laws, and would then be dealt with as illegal immigrants.
Zambia's immigration laws require any person wishing to settle in the country after being stripped of their refugee status to possess a professional qualification and obtain a work permit, but Bonshe said most of the refugees in the camps had no professional qualifications.
Anderson Nakaya, 42, a Congolese refugee, has lived in Zambia since Kala camp opened in 2000 and earns a living making reed mats, which he sells in the camp and the surrounding host community for US$2 each.
"Why I wouldn't want to go back to Congo? First, I don't know whether there is a market for my products there, and also I have heard many rumours of fighting in my country. My family is afraid - I have five children, all born in Zambia, and I wouldn't like them to go through what I went through when escaping to come here," Nakaya told IRIN.
Another Congolese refugee, Rosta Kafwimbi, a mother of four, said she was waiting to harvest her maize crop. "We have been staying well, we are well-fed and we have not experienced a problem, but we have to go; I am only waiting to finish my maize harvest, then I go ... Maybe in October we will be gone."
Derrick Fee, head of the European Union delegation in Zambia, a major donor to the refugee repatriation programme, told camp residents: "We are going to fund the repatriation only for a limited time and if you are to benefit, you must act within this limited time."
At the peak of Zambia's hospitality in the 1990s, the country accepted about 300,000 refugees fleeing the Angolan civil war and conflicts in the Great Lakes region. This number has dropped to about 86,000 - of which about 56,000 live in settlement camps - since the repatriation of Congolese, Rwandese and Angolan nationals began.
Congolese make up the majority of refugees (over 45,000) in Zambia, followed by Angolans (27,000) with the remainder being from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.