“We have been following closely the violence in DRC. I have already ordered the immigration officers to be on extra alert at Kasumbalesa [the border post],” Susan Sikaneta, permanent secretary in the interior ministry, told IRIN.
However, the clampdown appears to be more related to public health concerns than security threats, after the death last month of a Zambian tourism operator in a South African hospital from a previously unknown strain of hemorrhagic fever.
“We are not allowing any refugee to cross into Zambia at the moment because of the incidence of these mysterious diseases,” Sikaneta said. There is sensitivity in Zambia over the origin of the new strain of the Arena virus, which has been linked to the deaths of at least three people in South Africa.
“If they [refugees] come in, we are immediately sending them back, because their entering the country could be a recipe for these fears of mysterious diseases becoming real,” Sikaneta said. In the public imagination the DRC is believed to be the source of the Ebola virus, a highly virulent hemorrhagic fever.
Zambia has been home to thousands of Congolese refugees over the years of conflict in the Great Lakes region. Between May and December 2007, a total of 7,325 Congolese were voluntarily repatriated.
The exercise has continued in 2008, with a total of 8,038 returning home since May, and is expected to run into 2009, according to Fernando Protti-Alvarado, the deputy country representative of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Zambia.
“The voluntary repatriation of refugees from Zambia to the Democratic Republic of Congo has not been affected by the recent reported fighting in the Kivus [North and South Kivu provinces in eastern DRC]. This is because most of the Congolese refugees repatriating from Zambia have been returning to the southern fringes of DRC, namely, Katanga Province,” Protti-Alvarado told IRIN.
“In view of the long distance from Zambia to where fighting is reported to be occurring in DRC, no significant influxes of refugees have been reported. UNHCR is always prepared; however, we don’t expect any major influx into Zambia at this particular time.”
Government forces and UN peacekeepers have been battling to halt an advance by rebel troops on the eastern DRC town of Goma, which has triggered an exodus of civilians.