Thanks to increased boat trips across the Oubangui river, more than 16,000 refugees have returned to their home districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Equateur province in the country’s northwest so far this year, the United Nations refugee agency has reported.This figure represents almost many as returned in the three previous years combined, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is preparing to phase out its assisted voluntary repatriation to Equateur by the middle of next year. UNHCR officials said the increase was possible because the agency had stepped up river return trips and was now taking people to two destinations simultaneously – Buburu and Imese.This year’s total return figure is expected to reach around 18,000, compared to just under 2,000 in 2004 when the programme started. Almost all of the returnees are coming from the Republic of Congo. “Even by African standards the return area is extremely remote,” said UNHCR Regional Representative Eusebe Hounsokou, while watching returnees board boats at the Republic of Congo town of Impfondo on the northern bank of the Oubangui river, which forms a natural boundary between the two Congos. From 1997-2002, Equateur province was torn by fighting between government troops and the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement which caused more than 60,000 Congolese to flee across the river. Peace has returned to the area and the military forces have been withdrawn from refugee return areas. The refugee agency has also used specially made wooden river boats called “balenaires” during repatriation. These long, thin vessels carry only 50 people each but are easier to navigate along the Oubangui and have helped boost return figures. “Repatriation numbers to Equateur province have peaked because we were able to run four repatriation boat convoys per week to two destinations in parallel, with up to 1,000 returnees per week,” said Ben Diallo, UNHCR’s head of office in Impfondo. Those returning still face hardship in an area lacking infrastructure and basic services, warned UNHCR, which conducts medical screening, vaccinates children against measles, and helps to rehabilitate health centres and schools while supporting income-generation projects in return areas. Since 2004, more than 136,000 Congolese refugees have repatriated to the DRC, mainly to South Kivu (59,000), Equateur (36,000) and Katanga (35,000) provinces. The majority have come back with UNHCR assistance. Some 310,000 Congolese refugees remain in countries like Tanzania (101,000), Zambia (56,000), Rwanda (45,000) and the Republic of the Congo (31,000). Fighting in the vast DRC’s North Kivu region has recently driven tens of thousands of others into Uganda. 25 October 2007Thanks to increased boat trips across the Oubangui river, more than 16,000 refugees have returned to their home districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Equateur province in the country’s northwest so far this year, the United Nations refugee agency has reported.