Going Home in Southern Africa

UN high commissioner for refugees talks of the import of repatriating vast numbers to Mozambique, S. Africa

SUCCESS in the peace process of Mozambique and democratization in South Africa would greatly enhance the prospects for long-term stability and prosperity across southern Africa, says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Sadako Ogata.

Mrs. Ogata, who today concludes a 12-day visit to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Mozambique, also says repatriation of some 1.7 million Mozambican refugees from six host countries - the biggest ever undertaken in Africa - would have a crucial bearing on Mozambique's peace process. ``The fact that the peace process in Mozambique is holding is enormously encouraging,'' she says. ``It is almost miraculous.''

Mozambique is due to hold its first multiparty elections in October under the supervision of a 7,000-member UN peacekeeping force. The country's first democratic vote was originally scheduled to take place last fall as mandated by an October 1992 peace accord between the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique and the former rebel Mozambican National Resistance Movement (Renamo).

The parties have agreed that elections will not proceed until a 30,000-strong unified army has been formed from 61,000 government and 19,000 rebel soldiers.

Failure to create an integrated army in Angola before that country's October 1992 elections is widely regarded as a major cause of the collapse of its transition to democracy. Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola rejected Angola's election results and renewed the fighting.

Some 40,000 soldiers in Mozambique have already gathered in UN assembly points. Government forces were set to begin demobilizing today, followed by Renamo forces on March 18.

Long, troubled past

The 17-year conflict that followed independence from Portugal in 1976 - exacerbated by drought and famine - claimed an estimated 1 million lives and drove some 1.7 million Mozambicans to neighboring states such as Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Swaziland. In addition, an estimated 3.5 million people were internally displaced.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ogata told of how UNHCR's involvement in the region had paved the way for eventual cooperation with South Africa. UNHCR began its involvement in southern Africa with the repatriation of some 40,000 Namibian refugees before independence in March 1990. This led to the signing of the historic deal with Pretoria in September 1991 on the return of South African exiles and the follow-up agreement on all refugees in September last year.

Ogata announced on Feb. 28 a $1.2 million training and re-education project for some 15,000 political exiles who have returned to South Africa since September 1991. Some 7,000-odd returnees were repatriated under UNHCR auspices; a further 6,000 exiles returned home with the assistance of national liberation movements. About 2,000 exiles returned between February 1990 and September 1991 when UNHCR concluded the deal.

``The South African government had a very skeptical view of the UN at that time,'' Ogata says. ``It was showing that we were fair and professional in the handling of the exiles that persuaded them to be more open-minded to the UN.''

UNHCR set up an office with a limited mandate to repatriate South African exiles in September 1991 after 18 months of painstaking talks with the Pretoria government. ``It was through this exposure that we found that the South African government was really serious about reconciliation,'' she said, referring to the government's eventual commitment to repatriate political exiles and release political prisoners. ``In this way, the UNHCR acted as an ice-breaker for change.''

Not until September last year did UNHCR finally reach agreement with the Pretoria government over the status of an estimated 250,000 Mozambican refugees in the Eastern Transvaal.

Influx of illegal immigrants

The position of the Mozambican refugees in South Africa is complicated by a far larger - and ongoing - influx of illegal immigrants seeking jobs. These immigrants, estimated to number between 500,000 and 2.2 million, pose a major problem for South African law enforcement officers. And the influx has accelerated. In 1992, some 61,000 immigrants were repatriated at a cost of $4 million.

There is also a lack of enthusiasm among Mozambican refugees in South Africa for repatriation to a country that has been ravaged by war and famine.

Ogata says the repatriation of refugees would take time - perhaps three years - because of the duration and nature of the Mozambique conflict. She says the position of the estimated 250,000 Mozambican refugees in South Africa should not be confused with job-seeking immigrants. Negotiations would need to occur between the South African and Mozambican governments over the position of Mozambican refugees in the country, she says.

``We do not believe there is a reason for refugees to leave Mozambique today with the peace process underway and rehabilitation facilities for returnees,'' she adds.

Since UNHCR began its $203 million repatriation program in April last year, an estimated 600,000 Mozambican refugees have returned home - the vast majority of them spontaneously from Malawi. Between April and October, UNHCR expects 7000,000 refugees to return to Mozambique.

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