NAIROBI, 25 May 2005 (IRIN) - The number of Rwandan refugees returning home from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has increased dramatically since a Rwandan rebel group announced recently that it would disarm and go home peacefully, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday.
In the last week alone, the agency said, more than 230 refugees had volunteered to return to Rwanda, bringing to more than 3,700 the total number of refugees that the agency had helped to return home since the beginning of 2005.
At least 1,300 Rwandans returned from the DRC's eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, the agency said, compared with just over 800 who returned in April 2004.
"The recent increase in returns coincides with an announcement on 31 March by the FDLR [Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda], a Rwandan rebel militia group, that it would disarm and peacefully return to Rwanda," Jennifer Pagonis, the UNHCR spokeswoman, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
"The return numbers change weekly, seemingly related to whether or not Rwandan civilians are allowed to leave FDLR-controlled areas," she added.
UNCHR said tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been living in the Kivus since 1996, when the refugee camps they had been staying in were attacked.
"Their life in the forest is extremely hard, and most of them come out in very bad health, especially the children," the agency said.
UNHCR set up 17 assembly points on the edge of the forest, following the pattern of dispersed displacement, where refugees who want to return home gather.
"The refugees often arrive at the assembly points in appalling condition after walking long distances through the bush," the agency said. "UNHCR provides them with new clothing and meals, and treats diseases like parasites, skin infections and malaria during their stay, which lasts two or three days. The refugees are then transferred to a transit centre in Bukavu or Goma before being transported home to Rwanda."
Pagonis said in light of the sharp increase of Rwandan refugees wanting to return home, UNHCR was expanding its capacity on the ground and would shortly open several new assembly points in the Kivus.
She said UNHCR was working in cooperation with the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC). It is within UNHCR's duties as a refugee agency to help civilians to return home, while MONUC is responsible for the return of FDLR fighters and their dependents. Rwandan combatants approaching one of UNHCR's assembly points are referred to MONUC, she added.
Since the start of the operation in 2000, UNHCR said it had repatriated over 77,000 people to Rwanda.
If the FDLR militia fulfils its pledge to disarm and go home, the number of returns is expected to increase dramatically in the next few months, UNHCR added.
There are an estimated 40,000 Rwandan refugees still in eastern DRC.