Going Home In Africa

AS wars subside in sub-Saharan Africa, millions of refugees will have the opportunity to return home in the next few years.

This is the upbeat assessment of Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Last week Mr. Lubbers estimated that peace progress on the continent should affect up to 2 million refugees - two-thirds of Africa's total refugee population - plus millions of people displaced by war but still living in their own country.

Many of the refugees have been away for more than 10 years. These have been some of the most intractable refugee problems in the world. Their repatriation, covering a large swath of Africa (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, and Rwanda), is expected to be Africa's largest in nearly a decade.

War is winding down for a variety of reasons. In Angola, one side won. In other cases, it was sheer exhaustion or the intervention of outsiders.

The fact that thousands of African refugees are already voluntarily returning to their homelands - as opposed to being forced back at gunpoint from a fed-up host like Tanzania - points to a welcome and necessary hope among the populace itself.

But the test of successful reintegration is what happens after returnees receive their food rations, blankets, kitchen tools, and start-up money from the UNHCR.

Of course, the primary responsibility lies with the leaders and citizens of these African nations themselves. They need to commit to long-term community development plans and transparent government.

But too often, the international community also falls down, forgetting about people after they've gone home. The UNHCR is forming a high-level, multinational working group of Africans and non-Africans to plan for the coming mass movement. Hopefully, the group can create and sustain the kind of commitment to this issue that it deserves.

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