Some 16,000 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) citizens who fled their country during the 1997-2002 conflict to seek refuge in neighbouring Congo have returned to their homes in the northwestern Equateur province this year, under a repatriation programme managed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"The surge in the number of returns to the rainforests of northwest DRC – almost all from the neighbouring Republic of Congo across the Ubangui River – comes as UNHCR prepares to phase out assisted voluntary repatriation to this area in mid-2008. The increase was possible because the agency had stepped up river return trips and was now taking people to two destinations simultaneously – Buburu and Imese," Jens Hesemann, UNHCR spokesman in Kinshasa, said on 26 October.
UNHCR expects a total of 18,000 citizens will return to the province in 2007, compared to 1,946 in 2004 when the repatriation programme began, 7,286 in 2005, and 10,655 in 2006.
"Almost 36,000 refugees have returned peacefully to Equateur province since we launched organised repatriation in 2004," UNHCR regional representative Eusebe Hounsokou said in a statement after watching returnees board boats at the Congolese town of Impfondo, on the northern bank of the River Ubangui on 19 October.
The river forms a natural boundary between the two Congos, cutting through hundreds of kilometres of thick tropical rainforest until it feeds into the River Congo.
"UNHCR faces logistical challenges in delivering aid to the returnee communities dispersed in small villages along the river. The refugee agency works with a flexible 'phase in, phase out' approach," said Hesemann.
"Those returning still face hardship in an area lacking infrastructure and basic services. Dug-out canoes are the main form of transport in an area with few roads, while many health centres are in a poor condition after years of neglect," he added.
The refugee agency has been carrying out medical screening at the transit centres and vaccinating children against measles. Partner agencies counsel returnees on HIV/AIDS and the danger posed by landmines.
UNHCR has also rehabilitated health centres and schools in the main return areas and supported income-generating projects such as fishing and carpentry.