IRC Assists in Major Repatriation of Refugees to Congo
Traveling on dilapidated muddy roads through dense jungle and transferring to boats to cross the Oubangi River, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun making their way home.
In early May, the IRC helped repatriate a first group of 109 refugees who had spent the last six years in the Betou region of neighboring Republic of Congo, and today begins the second phase of the large-scale return process. In all, an estimated 58,000 refugees are scheduled to return home to DR Congo over the next couple of years.
“Although there is still some skepticism about stability in DR Congo, many refugees feel it is time to go home and help rebuild their own country,” said Jef Imans, the IRC’s Brazzaville-based logistics coordinator. “But others are awaiting feedback about conditions from the first groups of returnees,” Imans adds. “We expect that even more refugees will sign up for repatriation in the next few months.”
In coordination with UNHCR, the IRC is responsible for all operational aspects of repatriation in the town of Betou, where 16,000 refugees are currently registered. Most of them fled DR Congo’s volatile Equateur Province in 1999 when fighting erupted between rebels and the army of the late Congolese president Laurent Kabila.
A joyful reunion in DR Congo between this woman, a returning refugee, and her cousin. (Photo: Jiro Ose)
The IRC is providing information, gathering refugees in preparation for their departure and organizing road and river convoys to transit centers in DR Congo. “We’re also operating departure centers where the refugees are provided with food and medical screenings, and the appropriate vaccinations before leaving,” Imans explained.
During the first phase of the repatriation process, heavy rains turned the roads to mud, making a difficult logistical operation even harder. The convoy of trucks had to transit through the Central African Republic before finally reaching the Oubangi river, where they crossed to the shores of DR Congo by ferry. “Trees had fallen on the road to the river and it had to be cleared with axes before we could continue,” Imans said.
The IRC began working in Betou, just across the DR Congo border, in 2000 when some 35,000 refugees crossed into the region. Since then the IRC has been providing education, health, water and sanitation assistance, along with gender-violence prevention and other community service in the area.
The UNHCR plans to continue the repatriation in other regions of Republic of Congo starting in the autumn. The process is expected to be fully completed by the end of 2007.