A significant number of Angolan refugees in Zambia may elect not to join a voluntary repatriation programme restarting in the next few months at the end of the rainy season, said a report this week by the US Committee for Refugees.
Some 18,000 Angolans were repatriated from Zambia by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in an operation that began in June last year. Approximately 90,000 remain in three refugee settlements - Mayukwayukwa, Meheba, and Nangweshi - in the west of the country, while an estimated 97,000 more unregistered "spontaneously settled" Angolans live outside the camps among the Zambian population.
According to the US Committee for Refugees, "as many as 30,000 to 50,000 Angolan refugees have no desire to live in Angola and will choose to remain in Zambia rather than repatriate." These include young adults and children born and raised in Zambia, many of whom have never visited Angola and are unfamiliar with their homeland.
However, Anu Visamies, UNHCR's senior programme officer in Zambia, cautioned that there was no known figure for how many refugees may choose to opt out of the repatriation programme. The estimate used by the US Committee for Refugees was based on the number of old-caseload Angolans, who by now were well integrated into Zambian society.
Visamies said UNHCR was working with the Zambian government to regularise their immigration status, and a first step was to provide them with permanent residency. She noted that a parliamentary bill, which would have granted them citizenship, failed to pass through the national assembly.
People fleeing the war in Angola began arriving in Zambia three decades ago, but only in the last few years have schools in the refugee camps used the Angolan syllabus and taught Portuguese.
The Angolans are known for their farming skills, and most reached a remarkable level of self-sufficiency and did not become dependant on the international community during their stay in Zambia, the US Committee for Refugees commented.
"Local Zambian officials empowered Angolan refugees by providing them with [2.5 to 5 hectares] of fertile land for agriculture purposes upon arrival to Zambia. This generosity enabled refugees to supplement their diets and to eventually amply feed themselves," the report noted.
"With the repatriation of the Angolan refugee population, Zambia has already lost, and will continue to lose, a tremendous source of agricultural labour and production," it added.
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