The UN refugee agency UNHCR and the European Union are urging Congolese refugees on Tuesday to return home from Zambia, warning food aid could dry up as agencies focus on other humanitarian projects.
Officials at Kala Camp said out of 18 549 people that the UNHCR planned to repatriate this year to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), only 129 had registered for the voluntary programme.
Junior Home Affairs Minister Misheck Bonshe said Zambia may shut down the camp and warned that refugees who refused to leave would be treated as illegal immigrants. The repatriation programme, which will resume in May, has been suspended several times due to funding shortfalls and heavy rains.
During a visit to the camp 1080km north of Lusaka, officials from the UNHCR and the EU made a joint appeal to refugees to return to the DRC.
“We ask that you take this as the best opportunity to go home because (our) support will not be in perpetuity,” said James Lynch, the resident UNHCR representative.
“There will be other competing events that need our support, so that means we will not be able to provide (your requirements) as before.”
Officials say 45 307 refugees out of a total of 81 684 refugees still living in Zambia are from the DRC.
Years of fighting between Congo’s army, local ethnic militias and troops from neighbouring states have sent waves of refugees fleeing across most of the vast nation’s land borders, straining the resources of nearby countries.
Derek Fee, head of the European Union delegation to Zambia, said that the EU would focus on assisting refugees who have returned to the DRC.
“Now that conditions back home are conducive for your return, our assistance to UNHCR will shift more to DRC to help with your re-integration in the DRC,” Fee said.