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By Abdi Hajji Hussein
The refugee status of 9,500 people from the Republic of Congo, who have been in neighboring Gabon since the late '90s, expired on 31 July, but many are still reluctant to return home.
"Many want to go home but are worried about conditions. We have no houses, no work. Soon it's back to school and we worry about our children's education," said Philippe Vangou, head of a large family, a recent returnee to Brazzaville, the Congo capital.
As of 1 September, of the 9,500 refugees, at least 692 had crossed the border to return to Congo by land and air. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registered 553 returns in August.
"UNHCR is organizing repatriation, from registration formalities to departure," said Philippe Bateza, a UNHCR protection officer in Brazzaville, noting that since the signing in 2001 of a tripartite agreement between Gabon, Congo and UNHCR on repatriation, only 2,609 have returned.
"The Congolese authorities… want to reinvigorate the process," he said.
"So far, 1,700 applications for residence permits - for about 3,500 people - have been lodged with the Gabonese authorities," UNHCR public information officer Daniela Livia Biciu told IRIN.
"When you count, you find that the number of undecided people is still very significant. What will most of these people decide to do? The next two months will allow us to identify the trend," Gabriel Ontsira, director of humanitarian information at the Congolese Ministry of Humanitarian Action, told IRIN.
Almost all the Congolese refugees fled to Gabon after several civil wars, which rocked southern and southwestern Congo in 1997-2003. They were chased out of the Bouenza, Niari and Lékoumou areas where armed groups clashed with government forces.
"About 65 percent of returnee children were born during the exile of their parents," said UNHCR.
To encourage the return of their citizens, the Congolese authorities have had an amnesty in place since 1999 for people who took an active part in the war.
"We came back home. We were received by our families but there is a big accommodation problem because in the intervening period our families have grown," a 39-year-old refugee near Dolisie (Congo's third-largest city), who wanted to be known only as Paul, told IRIN.
"Not everything is going as we would have wished. It's a start. We are learning to live again. I think we will eventually adapt," he added.
"For many, the family has grown and become a great burden," said Ontsira.
UNHCR is providing the equivalent of US$200 per adult and $100 per child "to help them make ends meet in the first few days", said Bateza.
The Congolese government has set aside 300 million CFA francs ($600,000) to help the refugees.
With regard to reintegration, the government claims to have taken all the necessary measures.
"Officials are received by their former local authorities, and their salary arrears are paid; and the same goes for pensioners," said Ontsira.
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
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