In DR Congo, UN official pledges support to help displaced people return home

High Commissioner António Guterres addressing residents of Dongo, northwestern DRC

22 July 2010 – The United Nations refugee chief is visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he has pledged assistance and support for civilians uprooted by fighting to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.

“The need is to prepare conditions for people to return to their homes,” António Guterres, High Commissioner for Refugees, said during a stop in Dongo in the western province of Equateur on Wednesday.

Ethnic clashes in Equateur earlier this year caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people, as well as widespread damage to homes and infrastructure.

The UN refugee agency, known as UNHCR, was forced to suspend its operations in the area in the wake of the violence, during which its offices were also destroyed.

Mr. Guterres, who met with former internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dongo, said his agency is getting ready to re-establish a presence in the region to help the internally displaced as well as prepare for the return of refugees.

There are 115,000 refugees currently living in neighbouring Republic of Congo, most of whom are originally from Dongo and Equateur’s provincial capital of Mbandaka.

While emphasizing the importance of humanitarian assistance for those in the region, the High Commissioner also highlighted the need to tackle other issues vital for development.

“The root causes of the conflict must be addressed, and development programmes that ease economic and social integration must be implemented. The response of the international community has to be proportionate with the dimensions of and the nature of the problems,” he stated.

According to UNHCR, fighting between militia groups and the Congolese armed forces, as well as violence against civilians, has displaced some 1.85 million people within the country and created 450,000 refugees – most hosted in neighbouring countries.

Last year alone, close to 210,000 were displaced from Equateur province – both internally, and across to neighbouring countries, while over a million other people were displaced in eastern DRC.

Mr. Guterres will travel to North Kivu province in the country’s east tomorrow accompanied by Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), who is currently on a fact-finding visit to Niger, DRC, Uganda and Rwanda.

Ahead of their visit to North Kivu, both officials were scheduled to meet today with President Joseph Kabila and senior members of the DRC Government.

They will both travel to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, this weekend for the opening of the African Union summit on 25 July.

Also attending the AU summit – which this year focuses on maternal, infant and child health and development in Africa – is Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. Representing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, she will address the gathering on issues of concern such as Somalia and Sudan, as well as hold bilateral discussions with a number of heads of State who will be at the summit.

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