Refugees not yet ready to return to Cabinda

Refugee leaders who fled Angola's oil-rich enclave of Cabinda during the long-running separatist conflict recently went home for a "go and see" visit, organised by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The aim of their trip was to assess whether conditions were suitable for returning. "But, after a three-day trip, visiting three municipalities, leaders said they would be reluctant to come home unless conditions improved. Now they've gone back to the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) to tell their fellow refugees what they saw," UNHCR said in a statement.

The "go and see" visit in late February by six refugee representatives was the first of its kind to Cabinda - an oil-rich province of Angola separated from the rest of the country by a strip of Congolese territory - where a 27-year conflict between the Angolan government and separatist rebels is still running.

"Since the peace accords were signed in April 2002, ending Angola's own civil war, more than 310,000 Angolan refugees have returned home to the main territory from surrounding countries. But, because of the continuing separatist conflict, only limited numbers have returned to Cabinda, leaving some 1,750 Angolan refugees from the enclave in Congo and a similar number in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many have lived outside Cabinda since the 1970s, when separatist troops sparked trouble in the enclave," UNHCR said.

After visiting potential areas of return in Cabinda, accompanied by staff from the UN refugee agency and high-ranking representatives of both governments, "the refugee leaders from three communities in Congo said they were concerned about the massive presence of the Angolan military and lack of infrastructure".

"They also said more needed to be done before they would be willing to return home. One refugee woman noted that 'all we saw were troops, troops, troops!' The authorities explained that troops were found in all countries, and were there to establish and provide security for all citizens. The same refugee responded that the visiting group had concluded there was not yet peace [in Cabinda]," UNHCR commented.

"If there was peace, we could come back tomorrow. But, for now, we would have to go from village to village in search of peace, and we are just tired of that," the agency quoted a refugee as saying.

Although some 7,000 refugees returned to Cabinda in 2002, many with UNHCR assistance, at this stage the refugee agency does not have a permanent presence in Cabinda, to organise or encourage group repatriation, given the "delicate" security situation in the enclave.

"But the visit is seen as a first step towards reviewing the current policy. Cabinda's provincial government is keen to see refugees repatriate in larger numbers than previously and briefed the refugee visitors on efforts for the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the enclave, and reiterated support for a larger repatriation operation with UNHCR assistance," the agency explained.

The Cabindan authorities have identified a site for a future reception centre some 40 km north of Cabinda Town, the provincial capital.