Groups of Congolese refugees left Mozambique for their homeland on Monday and Tuesday, the first to be voluntarily repatriated from the country since the return of peace to most parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after years of war.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) flew 116 people from Nampula, in northern Mozambique, to Kigoma, Tanzania, and from there they were ferried across Lake Tanganyika to the DRC's South Kivu Province.
About 300 people from the Maratane camp outside of Nampula, Mozambique's sole refugee site, have requested repatriation. Those not on the flights this week would probably make the trip next week, said Victoria Akyeampong, Mozambique's UNHCR representative. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is providing logistical support for the flights to the UNHCR.
About 4,500 Congolese are registered in Mozambique as refugees, by far the largest contingent being sheltered in the country, where some 7,500 people have protected status. More than 500,000 Congolese live as refugees outside of the DRC, many of them in the neighboring countries of Zambia and Tanzania.
Unlike those countries, Mozambique has yet to reach a formal repatriation agreement with the DRC and UNHCR, although Akyeampong expects one to be concluded soon. In the absence of an agreement, the UNHCR has yet to actively promote repatriation. "We are at the stage offacilitating people who want to go," Akyeampong told IRIN.
Besides transport to South Kivu, UNHCR gives returning families a stipend to help them rebuild their lives: adults receive US$100 and children half that amount.
Akyeampong said she expected more people to volunteer for repatriation as the reasons for staying in Mozambique faded away. Although at some distance from the DRC, Mozambique once represented a strategic pitstop for many refugees.
"Most were hoping to get resettled permanently in Canada or America," Akyeampong said. "In Mozambique, a country with a small refugee caseload, they stood a better chance of being noted for resettlement, but with peace returning to Congo, those prospects are less now - that's why some have decided to go home."
Mozambique had been a "gracious" host country, she said, and had developed a framework to encourage refugees to integrate into local communities.
The Maratane camp houses about 5,000 refugees, but around 2,500, who had proved to Mozambican officials that they could sustain themselves financially, live elsewhere in the country.