Geneva — An operation is underway to repatriate thousands of Congolese refugees from Zambia to the homes they fled four years ago in fear of their lives.
Inter-ethnic clashes and fighting between Congolese security forces and militia groups in parts of the southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo triggered a mass exodus of refugees to Zambia in 2017.
The violence in Haut-Katanga province has subsided, allowing for the safe return of refugees to their home country.
Consequently, nearly 5,000 Congolese refugees have decided to return home under the auspices of the U.N. refugee agency and Zambian authorities. A first group of 100 people left Mantapala settlement in Zambia's Luapula province Tuesday for Pweto territory in Haut-Katanga.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch says security in the area has improved sufficiently to allow for the return of the refugees in safety and dignity.
"We have to go and check with refugees about their intentions," Baloch said. "For us, the time is right for returns when the refugees decide to do so... Even before the start of this assisted voluntary return, some of the refugees had already returned back to DRC in this part."
Baloch says an estimated 20,000 refugees have spontaneously left Zambia since 2018 to return to their areas of origin--mainly to Pweto territory.
"The humanitarian community remains engaged with Zambia on the Zambian side but also on the Congolese side as well where we are present... UNHCR is working with authorities in DRC and other partners on reintegration projects, including education, health and agriculture," Baloch said.
Baloch says two buses and two trucks transported the first group of refugees and their belongings to their homes in the DRC. He says the returnees will receive a cash grant to help them pick up their lives again.
The UNHCR says the voluntary repatriation will continue into 2022 until all those wishing to return are safely settled back home.