Uganda prepares for safe repatriation of Congolese refugees

Uganda Police divers and local fishermen search for victims of a boat disaster on Lake Albert near Kitebere on March 23, 2013.

Story highlights

  • "We are stepping up efforts to ensure orderly repatriation of refugees," says Ugandan minister
  • At least 108 people died Saturday when an overloaded boat capsized
  • Most of its passengers were Congolese refugees

Three days after at least 108 passengers -- most of them Congolese refugees -- died when their overloaded boat capsized on Lake Albert, the Ugandan government wants to find a safe way to send the survivors home.

"To avoid more accidents due (to) violations of safety rules, we are stepping up efforts to ensure orderly repatriation of refugees wishing to return to their countries," said Hillary Onek, Uganda minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees.

Officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United Nations refugee agency will meet April 14 to work out details for the refugees' return, he said.

At least 45 people were rescued.

Meanwhile, police were continuing Tuesday to scour the waters for more bodies, though there was little expectation that further survivors would be found.

Overloaded boats are a common cause of death on Lake Albert and across the lakes of the Albertine Rift region.

Ugandan police spokesman Patrick Onyango said Saturday that the refugees had left from the Kyangwali settlement camp in Hoima district. "They were leaving the camp to get back to their country, and it is the cheapest transport for them," he said.

Over the past decade, rebellions against the Joseph Kabila-led administration had led tens of thousands of people to flee to Uganda, where about half of the nearly 400,000 refugees are Congolese.

The capsizing occurred as the boat was returning to DRC after U.N. forces there had dislodged a number of rebel groups from Ituri, an interim province in northeastern DRC.

Saturday's victims were among an increasing number of refugees who, in response to assurances from cultural leaders and humanitarian agencies that they would be safe, have chosen to return, according to officials from Uganda, DRC and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The accident was as a result of one of (those) spontaneous returns," Onek said. "It is in response to campaigns, mainly by King Bamukoka Swambili Kamango of the Batalinga tribe in eastern DRC, calling on his subjects to return home because peace had been returned" to their country of origin.

The king had said that humanitarian agencies were poised to provide the returnees with settlement help, Onek said.

"In the meantime, we are sensitizing the Congolese refugees about the dangers of escaping from settlements without notifying their host authorities," he added.

Most of the bodies have been claimed by relatives and taken to DRC for burial; those unclaimed will be buried in marked areas for future claimants, Onek said.