After decades, a journey home for Angolan refugees

Making a Difference, 18 May 2012

© UNHCR/T. Ghelli
A UNHCR-organized convoy departs from Okakwa transit centre in Namibia on Thursday morning, bringing Angolan refugees back home.

ONGWEDIVA, Namibia, May 18 (UNHCR) Over 100 Angolan refugees, some of whom had been refugees in Namibia for more than 20 years, returned home on Thursday with help from the UN refugee agency.

The group of 31 families began their journey earlier this week when they left the Osire refugee settlement and travelled over 850 kilometres to a transit centre near the border with Angola. Over the course of the three-day journey the refugees were provided with shelter and food. Before returning to Angola the families received cash grants from UNHCR and food rations for three months from the World Food Programme. The Namibian government also donated trucks to transport the families' belongings back to Angola.

Once in Angola, the former refugees received identity documents and reintegration packages provided by the Angolan government.

Over three thousand Angolan refugees in Namibia have registered their intention to return to Angola by June 30. Earlier this year, UNHCR recommended that cessation be invoked for Angolan refugees as of June 30, 2012. That would effectively bring to an end a refugee situation stretching back to 1961 and Angola's war of independence from Portugal.

Cessation is being invoked because the situation in Angola has fundamentally changed. Peace and stability have returned with most Angolan refugees already having gone home. In 2011, only 28 Angolans returned from Namibia.

Castro Mawonso, aged 48, returned to his homeland with his family this week on an earlier UNHCR convoy. A refugee for most of his life, he recalled fleeing Angola for the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964. The family subsequently returned to Angola. Years later, at the age of 34 and with children of his own, Castro was again forced to flee a civil war, finding refuge in Namibia. "The fighting was just too much," he said.

Castro and his wife went on to have five more children in Namibia. For them, Angola is an unknown country. His biggest concern now is education for his children. "My children have never learned in Portuguese, so I think it will be a challenge for them, "he said.

"I have heard for many years about the voluntary repatriation but this time, I have decided to go home myself," said Castro. "I was not sure, but I then I changed my mind when I heard about the cessation and that we would be assisted to bring our belongings back with us."

Government officials from Namibia and Angola took part in a ceremony on Monday at the Osire camp to mark refugees' return. The refugees thanked Namibia for hosting them and Namibian officials wished them well on their long journey home. Angolan officials reiterated that the country is eager to receive all Angolans residents living outside and the country.

Since the resumption of assisted voluntary repatriation to Angola in 2011, over 10,500 refugees have returned home from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia with over 6,000 having returned in 2012.

UNHCR has registered nearly forty thousand Angolan refugees who intend to return home. As of the end of 2011, there were some 130,000 Angolan refugees still in exile, primarily living in neighboring countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo hosts the largest number with 78,144 Angolan refugees. Other countries with sizeable populations of Angolan refugees include Zambia, Namibia, South Africa and the Republic of the Congo.

UNHCR is also working with host governments to examine local integration options for those Angolan refugees who are unable to return or home or have strong ties to their countries of asylum.

By Tina Ghelli in Ongwediva, Namibia

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