Facilitating the return of conflict-displaced refugees to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the key components of regional stabilization efforts.
With around 365,000 DRC nationals dispersed across several countries in the Great Lakes region, many of them for almost two decades, the traditional triad of “durable solutions” - going home, integrating for good locally, or moving to a third country - remain “largely elusive”, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
This briefing unpicks some of the key issues.
Why is this protracted issue gaining traction now?
In January 2014, the heads of the 11 states which in 2013 had signed a Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework in DRC and the Region (PSC) endorsed a Regional Plan of Action. In so doing they undertook to work together to facilitate “safe and dignified” voluntary repatriation.
The military defeat in December 2013 of one the main armed actors in eastern DRC, the M23 rebellion, raised expectations of significantly improved security in areas from where refugees fled. Elements of another armed group active in the eastern Kivu provinces, the mainly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), are now disarming.
And recently the DRC government has been appealing for refugees to return.
What are conditions for refugees like?
This varies according to the host country. The difference is quite stark, for example, between the sites in Uganda and Rwanda visited by IRIN this month.
Uganda, home to 379,000 refugees and asylum seekers (170,000 of them from DRC), does not have camps per se, but large “refugee settlements”, where residents are allotted seeds and tools and plots of between half and a full hectare of land to cultivate crops both for subsistence and income generation. (Three years after arriving most refugees stop receiving food rations and rely on what they produce themselves.)
The settlement IRIN visited, Kyangwali, was established in the 1960s and covers 71 very fertile square kilometres. It consists of 22 separate villages, housing a total of 39,400 refugees, all but a few thousand of them DRC nationals. Some 15,620 of the DRC nationals in Kyangwali arrived in 2013, fleeing clashes involving M23 or the ADF-Nalu group.
Being a much smaller country, Rwanda lacks the space to give cultivatable land to its 75,000 refugees (mostly Tutsis from DRC) and so their sites are much more densely populated, with virtually no opportunity for agriculture or employment and very little in the way of livelihood programmes. In fact, there is very little to do at all in camps like Gihembe, where 14,700 refugees live cheek-by-jowl on 40,000 square metres on a hilltop a couple of hours drive from the capital, Kigali. Some family dwellings measure just 12 square metres. A water shortage means refugees now receive less than half of the recommended 20 litres per day.
Rwanda provides free schooling to refugee children, but only up to the third year of secondary school. Direct cash transfers are superseding food distributions.
In Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp, where some 64,000 DRC refugees live, the situation “continues to deteriorate as a result of limited funding”, according to a UNHCR overview, which points in particular to the poor state of health and education infrastructure.
Some 30 percent of Nyargusu residents lack adequate shelter and family latrines. The last distribution of non-food items there took place seven years ago, according to the briefing, which also noted that the “levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have remained consistently high over the past two years.”
Is going home possible?
Where it is practicable, voluntary repatriation is generally the preferred “durable solution” in most refugee situations. The DRC government has been publicly encouraging refugees to come back and urging the UN to facilitate the process, in line with tripartite agreements signed with governments hosting refugees and with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
For UNCHR, security conditions are not conducive in eastern DRC for safe and dignified returns and so the agency is not promoting or organizing large-scale repatriation operations. M23 may be a spent force for now, but dozens of armed groups remain active in North and South Kivu and in Orientale Province; disarming them is a major challenge.
In the absence of laid-on transport, thousands of recently-arrived refugees in Kyangwali have returned to DRC, often across Lake Albert, with no assistance. In March 2014, 251 refugees drowned when their overcrowded boat hit bad weather on the lake.
That incident prompted UNHCR to set about organizing shuttle buses from Kyangwali to the DRC border to ferry the 3,500 refugees who have said they want to return to DRC. But the process has met with delays resulting from DRC officials’ advance screening of those wanting to coming back from Uganda. Refugees blame this delay on UNHCR, leading to tense relations in the settlement. It is not clear what will happen to those refugees whom DRC authorities do not clear.
How do the refugees feel about returning?
This depends greatly on when and where they left DRC. Many of the more recent arrivals, such as those who fled the Beni area for neighbouring Uganda, resisted being moved from the border crossing to Kyangwali, and are keen to go home as soon as possible. More than 6,000 have already done so.
Pull factors for these returns include the need to harvest and sell crops, notably cocoa, coupled with pressure to come home exerted by the local “king” or mwami in the town of Kamango.
But for the old caseload, it is a different story. For example, a recent study showed that among DRC refugees in Rwanda, who mostly arrived in the late 1990s, often having survived or witnessed extreme violence, “more than 96 percent do not consider repatriation an option.”
When IRIN visited Gihembe, community leaders among the (mostly-Tutsi) refugees attributed this reluctance chiefly to insecurity, specifically the presence of members of the Interahamwe militia which carried out Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and went on to massacre Tutsis in DRC and in Mudende, a Rwandan refugee camp. Many of the Interahamwe are now members of the FDLR, whose recent public commitment to disarmament has been met with widespread scepticism.
Other reasons not to go home cited by refugee leaders included the total absence of justice and accountability for the horrendous crimes committed over the years in eastern DRC; land disputes; and hostility from other communities because of their ethnicity (many Tutsis who fled massacres in Rwanda in 1959 were legally naturalized in DRC but their nationality and land rights - and those of their descendants - continue to be a major point of contention.)
“How can we go back to a country that does not recognize us as its own citizens?” said an elderly man among the leaders.
“We want to repatriate so much. Most of us know where our land is. But it is occupied by the people who chased us away,” he added.
At least half of those now in Gihembe were either born there or arrived at a very young age, often unaccompanied by parents. They have an additional problem.
“My father is dead; my mother is very old,” explained one of the younger refugees. “It’s not going to be easy to find the place I come from.”
Another man said the speeches from DRC officials encouraging return were “not based on reality. I know of one family that went back and some of them were killed. When they say people can return, we don’t see the truth of it.”
Some refugees pointed to the fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern DRC were internally displaced because of insecurity, and said until they began to return to their homes, refugees outside DRC would be unwilling to do so.
Can the refugees stay put indefinitely?
Another of the traditional “durable solutions” is to fully and permanently integrate refugees into the country of asylum, usually by becoming a citizen of that country. But in Uganda, there is no constitutional provision for the naturalization of refugees, except through marriage.
Still, refugees in Ugandan settlements, thanks to their plots, often develop a high degree of economic self-reliance. Although denied actual citizenship, local integration is enhanced through the provision of amenities and social services shared by refugees and the host community and through trading networks.
In Rwanda, there are legal provisions in theory, but there have been no moves to naturalize refugees or otherwise more fully integrate them nationally. This is mainly due to lack of land and job opportunities, Rwanda’s growing population, and the ongoing return soon of thousands of Rwandans living abroad.
Tanzania has for decades been a generous host for refugees and is currently home to 66,000 from DRC, most of whom fled in 1996. In 2010 naturalization was initiated for 162,000 Burundian refugees, but the process has yet to be concluded and there are no plans to extend this facility to DRC nationals.
What about resettlement?
Until recently, being moved permanently to a third country was a measure mostly reserved for individual refugees with specific protection needs, such as survivors of violence and unaccompanied children, and the numbers resettled were relatively small (in 2013, just one percent of the world’s 16.7 million refugees had access to resettlement).
From 2012, eligibility in Rwanda began to be assessed on a group, rather than individual basis, as part of regional efforts to step up and fast-track the use of resettlement as a response to the DRC refugee crisis.
Under this 2012-2017 scheme, some 50,000 DRC refugees could be resettled from the Great Lakes region, mostly to the USA. Some 10,000 candidates are currently in Rwanda, a number sufficient to close one of the camps there, as long as there are no new major influxes of refugees.
In the immediate future, only new caseload refugees are likely to return to DRC, with or without some assistance from UNCHR. High-level interventions, perhaps involving UN Great Lakes special envoy Mary Robinson, could help accelerate or in some cases bypass the screening procedures that are now holding up such returns.
An exhaustive survey by UNHCR of the intentions of DRC refugees in Ugandan settlements should be concluded by mid-July. This, coupled with investigations into the conditions of places of desired return, will help guide future policy decisions.
The expanded resettlement programme will also make a significant dent in the overall caseload by 2017.
Later this year, a ministerial meeting, held under the aegis of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, of PSC signatory states is slated to work towards adopting a regional approach to the DRC refugee situation and to explore options outside the traditional durable solutions.
However, prospects for fruitful international cooperation face significant obstacles, notably the ever-strained relations between DRC and Kigali, whose soldiers skirmished along their shared border in mid-June.
Another potential hurdle appeared in late June, when Rwanda accused the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) of flouting Security Council resolutions and UN committee rules by carrying a senior FDLR leader on domestic flights operated by the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC so that he could attend a meeting about disarmament in Rome. In a letter to the Security Council, Rwanda’s permanent representative to the UN Eugene-Richard Gasana threatened to withdraw from the PSC should DPKO “continue these attempts to sanitize FDLR genocidaires.”
(On 2 July MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler tweeted “we transported the FDLR in the interior of the country. They are forbidden to travel abroad. We respected the rules.”)
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.