This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Nearly 5,000 refugees who fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) four years ago are opting to head home voluntarily from Zambia in coming months, with the first 100 people setting out today (21 December).
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and Zambia’s authorities began the voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees from Mantapala settlement, in Luapula province, to Pweto in Haut-Katanga province in DRC, as security has improved sufficiently to allow for their return in safety and dignity.
Some 4,774 refugees have expressed their intention to return voluntarily through intention surveys carried out by UNHCR in October. The voluntary repatriation which will continue into 2022 is part of the continuation of the tripartite agreement signed in 2006 by UNHCR and the Governments of Zambia and the DRC.
As security has improved in some areas of Haut-Katanga, an estimated 20,000 refugees have spontaneously left Zambia since 2018 to return to their areas of origin – mainly to Pweto territory. UNHCR is working with authorities in DRC and involving development partners like CARITAS, to advance reintegration projects including education, health and agriculture, and to ensure conditions for safe and dignified returns.
Some 18,000 Congolese refugees live by farming at Mantapala settlement alongside 5,000 Zambians, across 11 integrated villages. The settlement was established in early 2018 to accommodate refugees who were displaced because of inter-ethnic clashes as well as fighting between Congolese security forces and militia groups in parts of the south eastern DRC in 2017.
The governments of Zambia and the DRC, UNHCR and its partners including UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working closely to support the returning refugees. That support includes the provision of Voluntary Repatriation documents, expedited immigration clearance, health screening and school certificates to allow children to resume their education in the DRC.
UNHCR and WFP have provided two buses and two trucks to transport refugees and their belongings, as well as food for the journey. In addition, they will receive a cash grant to help them as they pick up their lives again in the DRC.
UNICEF has improved water and sanitation facilities at the reception centre in Chiengi district, where returning refugees will sleep over to process immigration documents before embarking on the final leg of their journey home.
The Government of Zambia has prepared a COVID-19 rapid test for the returning refugees at the Mantapala Rural Health Centre, before they commence the journey. UNHCR will disinfect the buses, provide face masks, hand sanitisers and, together with the authorities, ensure that COVID-19 prevention measures are observed, including loading of buses to half the capacity.
Zambia hosts some 103,028 refugees, asylum seekers, and former refugees. These include 63,681 from the DRC.