The Repatriation of Angolan Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

November 19, 2002


1. What we know:

The United Nations hopes that the peace process in Angola is irreversible. The disarmament of the National Union of the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) military forces has been completed. There has been no violation of the cease-fire since the signing of the agreement between the parties on April 4, 2002. The first phase of the Angolan peace process, military disarmament, has been completed. The second phase, restructuring and strengthening of the political process, is now underway.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1433 created a UN Mission in Angola (UNMA). The six month-long mission, scheduled to end in February 2003, has a mandate to assist with political and humanitarian matters. This includes the protection and promotion of human rights and the building of institutions to consolidate peace and enhance the rule of law. In addition, the mission mandate includes facilitating and coordinating the delivery of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs). A Joint Commission has been the principal forum to discuss the problems and define solutions to secure the peace. Once the UNMA mandate ends, UN agencies will continue working in Angola in normal ways.

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Refugees and Displaced Persons

The Angolan government has accepted responsibility to resolve the problem of human displacement caused by nearly three decades of conflict. The legal and policy framework in Angola for repatriation, established in May 2002, incorporated by reference the guidelines on internal displacement of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. However, there are no mechanisms in place yet to monitor compliance with the Angolan government’s regulamento for the Norms on the Resettlement of Displacement Populations. International refugee repatriation arrangements are measurable against guidelines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and are normally implemented and facilitated through host country programming. Negotiations are on-going in relation to a series of tripartite agreements between the Angolan government, UNHCR, and refugee hosting governments in the region.

After almost three decades of civil war, there is an enormous amount of internal and external human displacement. It is estimated that there are nearly 500,000 Angolan refugees in Zambia, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia and South Africa (70,000 of whom have already returned according to UNHCR). There are also an estimated 4.1 million IDPs, of which 80,000 are former UNITA soldiers, and 160,000 are other individuals who were formerly mobilized. There is great concern over how these populations can be safely demobilized, resettled and reintegrated. UNHCR estimates that 860,000 IDPs have already returned home.

Many camps for these uprooted persons have been set up by the military. The Angolan government has announced that the camps will remain open until the end of the year. This will facilitate access by international agencies to needy people during this period. But there is a concern by NGOs that closure of the camps in the coming rainy season would cause extreme hardship on account of lack of shelter and food insecurity in the country. Abuse, in particular of young women, has been reported. Many children have been placed in orphanages with inadequate care and supplies. But no government structures currently exist to address these problems. The Angolan government specifically lacks the local capacity to receive and integrate returnees.

2. What we don’t know:

Whether the peace in Angola is sustainable remains uncertain. The demobilization and reintegration process of ex-combatants is a serious, long-term issue. Although the military forces have been disarmed, the military structure and hierarchy remain in place. The UNITA command structure remains tight, and former soldiers, largely residing in camps, could be mobilized in a short period of time.

Many of the camps set up by the military are in areas very far from the necessary resources and services. One meeting participant, having recently returned from one of the camps, suggested that international agencies provide assistance in camps that would alleviate suffering as well as create a greater sense of security and self-sufficiency amongst the inhabitants. Another participant argued that the focus should be on long-term development rather than on immediate humanitarian aid. How international agencies help to fill the gap between relief and development will be a central question for the future.

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Refugees and Displaced Persons

One of the greatest challenges will be how to address the prospect of repatriation into conditions that cannot support new populations, with the danger of growing alienation on the part of returnees. This issue is a potential threat to the future stability of Angola.

Among the other major challenges identified was the need for adequate programs of demining. It was noted that the issue of spontaneous resettlement could produce tensions over land. Questions of transitional justice for war criminals are likely to arise. There is also a debate on the degree of UNITA involvement in the reintegration of IDPs and refugees.

There will be a key role for the international financial institutions in Angola’s recovery. Angola is considered resource rich, particularly in terms of oil reserves. But this raises fundamental questions about fiscal integrity, transparency, and corruption. Human rights enforcement is an issue as well.

Elections may occur in 2004, and could provide a measure of progress with respect to the quality of governance. But Angola’s political future, while hopeful, remains uncertain.

3. What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom?

Among the most daunting long-term issues confronting Angola now is the resettlement of IDPs and refugees. The United Nations has been involved in the process of repatriation. A collaborative effort between the Angolan government, the UN, NGOs, and business interests will be needed in order to help make return sustainable.

It is crucial to address potential donor government concerns about indigenous fiscal integrity, restructuring provincial governments, and building local infrastructure. The implications for the return of IDPs and refugees, moreover, are profound. Therefore, these key issues will be examined in depth in subsequent CFR meetings. In particular, an effort will be made to marshal comparative experiences from elsewhere in the world in order to apply past lessons to these daunting challenges. The objective will be to assist the UN to help the Angolan government and its people to help themselves.


Project Directors:

Arthur C. Helton, Council on Foreign Relations

Robert P. DeVecchi, Council on Foreign Relations


Robert P. DeVecchi, Council on Foreign Relation

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