Only 37 of 1,038 Congolese nationals sent fleeing into northern Zambia in early March by renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have sought asylum, a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official told IRIN on Monday.
"It is difficult to establish if the others have all gone back, or have been integrated into Zambian society," said Patrick Kawama, a protection officer at the UNHCR sub-office in Kawamba, near the border.
The DRC refugees crossed to Kilwa island in Lake Mweru from villages located between the southeastern DRC towns of Pweto and Kasenga in Katanga Province. The island is in the Zambian portion of the lake, about an hour by boat from the DRC border.
Zambian authorities told IRIN last week that the Congolese had fled following threats from Mayi-Mayi rebels.
The UNHCR had been trying to arrange for boats to ferry the Congolese to the Kala refugee camp near Nchelenge, where there was a Zambian border post. "When we finally acquired four boats last week, hoping to transfer at least 160 refugees, only 37 of them came forward," Kawama said.
Kawama pointed out that the Zambians on Kilwa island and the Congolese living in the villages bordering Lake Mweru were fishing communities with close links. "Both communities share the same ethnic origin and there is a lot of exchange in terms of trade and social ties that takes place," Kawama explained.
"The locals [Zambians] are very reluctant to volunteer any information on the Congolese. Either those (Congolese) who entered Kilwa island are members of extended families [of the local Zambians] or are being used as cheap labour in the fishing industry. Or they might have gone back," he added.
The Zambian authorities were expected to start a process of identifying the Congolese refugees on the island, Douglas Tambulukani, the legal advisor to Zambia's Commissioner of Refugees said. "Then we will provide them with the option of seeking asylum or repatriation.".