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Nairobi, March 14, 2003 (IRIN): The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began on Thursday the integration of more than 3,300 Somali Bantu refugees into the local community in Tanzania, the UN agency reported.

UNHCR reported that the Somali Bantus fled to Tanzania in 1991 and 1992 following civil war and the collapse of the Siyad Barre government in Somalia. This group was among "tens of thousands" of Somalis who "travelled on overcrowded and rickety dhows to Kenya's coastal town of Mombasa," it said.

"They made their way farther south to Tanzania's Tanga region, following a reverse path that their ancestors had taken more than three centuries ago when they were transported as slaves," it added.

The first group of about 130 refugees was transported on Thursday in two buses and trucks to a newly built settlement, 80 km from the Tanzanian commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. UHHCR said the convoy marked the beginning of its operation to transfer the Somali Bantus from Mkuyu, their home of more than 10 years, to the new Chogo settlement.

The UNHCR representative in Tanzania, Chrysanthus Ache, said the transfer of the refugees from Mkuyu to Chogo could be completed by mid-April.

"The Chogo settlement, complete with a health centre, schools, a market and a police post, is the result of nearly three years of construction work at a 5,000-acre site that was set aside by the government of Tanzania in 1999 to integrate the Somalis locally," the UNHCR said.

It said many of the Somali refugees could trace their origins to Chogo, close to the coastal town of Tanga, in the northeast, an area mostly inhabited by the Zigua community.

"The Somali Bantus still speak Zigua, as well as Kiswahili, which is the national language of Tanzania. The refugees also share many cultural practices with their new community," the agency said.

It added that the Somalis were renowned for their industriousness, and that they would be likely to get down to work in their newly acquired homes to benefit from an upcoming rainy season. Chogo, situated 100 km from Tanga, has large areas of woodland and arable land suitable for fruits, vegetables, maize and cassava.

"Each refugee family in Chogo will receive more than two acres of land for its home and farmland," UNHCR said.

"Other amenities and facilities in the settlement will be used by both the refugees and the local community, estimated at some 1,000 inhabitants," it added.

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