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LUSAKA, 26 November 2008 (IRIN) – Fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is jeopardising a voluntary repatriation programme for Congolese refugees in neighbouring Zambia, a senior UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official has said.”Just before the fighting erupted in the [eastern] Kivu region [of DRC], the number of refugees registering for voluntary repatriation in the Mwange and Kala camps [in northern Zambia] had shown a significant increase. But now, very few are coming forward to register, and even some of those who register are opting out at the last minute,” said James Lynch, the UNHCR [UN refugee agency] country director in Zambia.”Most of the refugees are able to obtain information on what is happening in the DRC through shortwave radios and other sources. What they glean, they share with other refugees in the camps.”

UNHCR has been repatriating Congolese refugees, mostly to Katanga Province in southern DRC, since 2007. A total of 7,323 were repatriated in 2007 and some 9,001 returned this year; a further 11,572 refugees were expected to repatriate before the end of 2008.

When clashes broke out recently in DRC between rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and government forces, UNHCR said the fighting would not affect the repatriation programme, as Katanga was some distance from the conflict zone.

“But [now] the refugees are citing fear of the conflict spreading from eastern Congo to other areas as the reason for not registering for voluntary repatriation … since reports of the resumption of the armed conflict in eastern Congo began to come in, numbers [of refugees willing to repatriate] have gone down,” Lynch said.

Zambia is home to some 45,253 Congolese refugees; of these, 28,571 reside in camps and settlements, 1,682 in urban areas, and an estimated 15,000 are self-settled.

A fluid situation

Ronnie Shikapwasha, Zambia’s chief government spokesperson, this week announced that the country was preparing for a major influx of refugees from its giant northern neighbour.

“Zambia is ready to welcome refugees from DRC. It is a fluid situation; naturally, it will affect Zambia. A number of refugees will start trickling to Zambia and we will have to work out a situation where the United Nations, under the UNHCR, should be able to help looking after the refugees,” Shikapwasha told the local media.

A possible new influx would exert even more pressure on the UNHCR, already struggling after the UN World Food Programme announced that a funding shortfall was forcing it to cut feeding programmes to vulnerable refugees.

Zambia also hosts thousands of asylum seekers from Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

 

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