Why do refugees in eastern D.R.Congo not have access to humanitarian relief aid; yet, they are among the key populations at high risk? Is UNHCR in charge? Is UNHCR in D.R.Congo still accountable to refugees as indicated in the “UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to refugees outside the camp”? Are refugee lives in eastern D.R.Congo being used for political gains?
D.R.Congo is a member of various international legal frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN 1951 Convention on Refugees, the African Union Convention on Refugees.
Additionally, the country integrated these international treaties into its own domestic refugee legal framework through the 2002 Refugee Law.
STATISTICS OF REFUGEES IN D.R.CONGO.
Official refugees’ statistics are not yet available in D.R.Congo because the registration of refugees is not yet regulated. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are about 550,000 refugees in D.R.Congo; however; this number reflects only those who are in contact with UNHCR. The majority of unknown refugees are residing throughout Eastern D.R.Congo, we estimate there are more than 700,000 refugees in Eastern D.R.C. alone, among them only 1/4 are recognized by UNHCR.
Unveiling the reality of Refugees in Eastern D.R.Congo: Myths and Facts
Why do refugees in eastern D.R.Congo not have access to humanitarian relief aid; yet, they are among the key population at high risks? Is UNHCR in-charge? Is UNHCR in D.R.Congo still accountable to refugees as indicates the “UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to refugees outside the camp”? Are refugee lives in eastern D.R.Congo being used for political gains?
Background of this Report
Our vision: Global Refugee Leaders Forum is engaged to contribute to the well-being of refugees under the vision “To make D.R.Congo one among the best countries in the world, in fully respecting refugee rights.”
Objectives of this report:
It can be argued that education is a process of learning, relearning, and unlearning, and there is a lot to learn, to relearn, and unlearn about refugees in Nyiragongo – considered as one among the divisions of Goma in North Kivu, D.R.Congo. Therefore, this report seeks the following:
1. To advocate for the right of refugees in Nyiragongo to gain access to humanitarian services,
2. To create a debate among various actors to expand the existing knowledge about these refugees,
3. To identify the key threats to refugee rights which may need our intervention,
4. To alert other partners on the situation of refugees in Nyiragongo,
5. To share information among refugees about the existing opportunities,
This report was based on our field work started on March 30th, 2021 in Nyiragongo, a division surrounding the town of Goma. There are only two divisions in Goma where refugees are supposed to benefit from the UNHCR assistance, mainly Goma and Karisimbi Divisions, Nyiragongo is not one of them. This report was initiated as a result of refugees visiting our offices to alert us about the unbearable conditions in which they are living and which may need urgent interventions. It is also based on debates which are generated during our weekly briefing meetings and information sessions with refugees at the office.
1. Information session
2. Elaborating a questionnaire
3. Field visit and interviews,
4. Key informants,
5. Writing the report,
6. Launching the Report,
Many refugees in Nyiragongo do not understand why they are excluded from social benefits, who profits from their exclusion, and who should be accounted for it. Additionally, we receive consistent information that indicates an unequal implementation of these arbitrary exclusive decisions – some refugees from Nyiragongo and other parts seem to benefit from UNHCR assistance while others do not. This has fueled many negative perceptions by refugees who believe in the traffic of influence, bribes, and other forms of deals. In our interaction with UNHCR Goma on this issue and many others, UNHCR referred us to refugee leaders, who informed us the following “Refugees from Nyiragongo are among those one suffering a lot but UNHCR believes that they are economically stable, because it is believed they have gardens, farms and plantations, which help them to live better, that they stay in free houses, and receive free education for their children among others. But this is not true”.
It was on this ground that we opted to advance our investigation into the field in order to observe the situation with our own eyes and share our findings with various actors. We are very much concerned about the situation of refugees; we have encountered a lack of adequate answers for the question of why refugees are left to suffer in silence. We hope this report may serve as a basis of reflection to many decision makers especially in UNHCR Goma. We would like to remind them of our slogan: “Refugees are not the problem but they have problems”.
There are no refugee camps in North Kivu, but in order to accommodate thousands of refugees scattered everywhere, they should have been allowed to benefit from other UNHCR Policies, mainly “the UNHCR Urban Refugee Policy of 2009”, and the “UNHCR Alternative Solutions to Refugees Outside the Camp of 2014”. These policies, once implemented, may create and increase protection spaces for refugees in North Kivu as indicated: “UNHCR’s Policy on Alternatives to Camps incorporates the urban refugee policy’s commitments to refugee rights, state responsibility, partnership, needs assessment, equity, community orientation, interaction with refugees and, importantly, self-reliance. Many of the comprehensive protection strategies that UNHCR set out in the urban refugee policy will also be relevant when pursuing alternatives to camps”, UNHCR Policy on Alternative Solutions to Refugees outside the camp (2014).
Goma is home to a large range of humanitarian organizations and other types of development partners, yet refugees in Nyiragongo whom we visited are not in contact with any organization. However, the same policy gives UNHCR the mandate to bring various actors on board “As with the urban refugee policy, UNHCR can only achieve the objectives of the policy on alternatives to camps with the engagement and support of all partners and stakeholders, including refugee and host communities, government authorities at all levels, non-governmental and community-based organisations and other civil society actors, UN agencies and other international organisations and development partners”.
About refugees in Eastern D.R.Congo
Refugees have existed in eastern D.R.Congo for many years. They have often been at the center of tension between different Congolese groups, and even with neighboring countries. According to our observations, this is the result of lack of efficient management of the refugee issue in the country. The attempt to put in place the Congolese Commission for Refugees (CNR) in 2002 has not managed to solve the problem yet, due to its internal limitations, which should be addressed as soon as possible. This report only refers to refugees who came from Rwanda and Burundi since 1994 and settled in Nyiragongo, Goma, D.R.Congo.
Although statistics about refugees is still unavailable, areas where they live are well known, including Nyiragongo surrounding Goma in North Kivu. The number of refugees in Nyiragongo remains unknown but the area is highly populated and one of the areas dominated by refugees. This research is not focused on the reason for their migration and arrival at D.R.Congo, but it will explore their humanitarian needs and try to find out why these needs are not met. It will explore the roles of the responsible actors and make recommendations.
Rawandan refugees who reside in Nyiragongo are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 andalso survived different wars in D.R.Congo. They are divided into three categories: those who were children before 1994 represented 85% of those we managed to talk to, those who were born and grew up in D.R.Congo represented 10% of the people we talked to, andthose who were adults before 1994 and all others who came to Congo represented 3%. The final 2% of those we spoke to are composed of those who ran away from Rwanda after the year 2000, those who were once repatriated and then came back to Congo, and others who initially came in Congo to look for opportunities but because of various wars they found themselves in refugee life. We interacted with a total number of 38 adult refugees in Mugunga/ Nyiragongo, two refugees’ opinion leaders and two community religious leaders where these refugees are going to pray.
During our interviews we focused on humanitarian situation (shelter, food, education, health care, livelihood, and security), but also why do they think they are not assisted, the perception of the people in the area and their perspective for the future.
Humanitarian crisis in Nyiragongo: The absence of the International Community
Housing: Thirty percent of the Refugees we interviewed in Nyiragongo are renting a house. The rent fee varies from $10$to $20$per month. Another 60% are “security guards”, watching a plot of lands for Congolese owners in exchange for free accommodation. The last category (10%) are those who have managed to acquire a plot of land and build small houses. The structure of the house indicates that the owners are not planning to stay there for long, most houses don’t have chairs, beds, or doors to separate the rooms, reflecting someone who is only there temporarily. The kitchens and the toilets also look very provisional, reflecting the same image indicating that refugees are conscious that they are there for a temporary period.
Nyiragongo is a place at the shore of Virunga National Park which, as a nature reserve, is supposed to be protected, receiving millions of dollars from the international community. But right on its banks there are refugees who are not given humanitarian relief aid, and who are left to survive on their own. How do we protect the National Park in such scenario?
4/5 refugees in Nyiragongo are not registered by either UNHCR or by CNR and even those who are registered do not understand the process of how they got registered and others didn’t. The refugee biodata paper, issued by UNHCR and CNR, that every refugee receives, reads “ the grant of the refugee status does not automatically guarantee you the right to access humanitarian relief aid”. This has attracted our attention, but our efforts to seek answers from either UNHCR or the CNR have not yielded fruits. However, we believe that such practice may violate the rights of refugees, especially those whose lives may depend on humanitarian support, and those who need urgent relief aid like this child (see photo 1) who is affected by malnutrition.
As mentioned before, Nyiragongo is on the edge of Virunga National Park, believed to be the hideout of various armed groups. Therefore, UNHCR must pay particular attention to these refugees in order to ensure they do not become victims of these armed groups. We did not investigate further into the possible links between refugees and the armed groups in Virunga. But we believe this should be another area of focus in order to help decision makers to understand the situation and act accordingly.
The CNR together with UNHCR should gazette specific settlement places, which would serve as permanent residences to all refugees in Nyiragongo and in other parts of North Kivu.
These settlements should be located at least 85 Km from the borders with Rwanda. Refugees who have nowhere else to stay or fail to pay rent in urban areas should be encouraged to explore the options of moving into the settlements.
A number of refugees we visited suffered high levels of food insecurity, especially vulnerable people such as single women, widows, orphans, victims of rape,HIV positive, and elderly people, among others. Those represented 70% of the population we interviewed. In some places malnourished children are visible and some are suffering from quashorchor. Nourishment remains one of the main challenges for refugees in Nyiragongo, just after the issue of shelter. More than 76% of the refugees interviewed attested to be severely affected by lack of access to food, mostly affected are vulnerable women and the children.
Those who have nothing to eat depend on others and on well-wishers, mainly Congolese neighbors, or acquaintances. But food is not the only challenge, they must also be able to afford water, firewood, cooking equipment and dishes.
Based on the situation in this area we believe immediate interventions are necessary in order to save the lives of those who are desperate.
We recommend putting in place food distribution centers where refugees can receive sufficient food provisions monthly,
To empower refugees to develop vocational skills, through capacity buildings and trainings in Income Generating Activities,
To put in place nutrition centers in partnership with existing health centers, churches or possibly schools,
To engage refugees in discussions in order to generate collaborations which will lead to better economic alternatives to improve their financial status.
At least 90% of refugees we visited live in small houses of only two rooms, the sitting room serves as both at the kitchen and also as the bedroom for the children, who sleep right near the fireplace.
Access to medical care is one among the challenges refugees in Nyiragongo are facing. Generally, they are not supported by any organization providing such services. The existing health centers are private and therefore only accessible for refugees who have enough money to pay for treatment. Among our interviewees more than 60% said they can only afford herbal medicine when they are sick and if this option fails, they will probably die as they have no other option. 20% said they do not even use herbal medicine when they are sick, they just stay home until either they die or they recover by themselves. A few said that they go to hospital for treatment when they have some money. The common diseases they are confronted with are malaria, typhoid, diarrhea – many areconnected to poor living hygiene, stress and malnutrition.
During our visit to the Health Center “Tout est Grace” where some refugees receive medical care, the doctor told us that only those who have a special medical card can access treatment. They must have a signed contract, unfortunately the great majority of refugees from Nyiragongo are unable to receive proper health care.
However, at Ushirika/ CCLK Health Center the situation seemed different as the doctor told us that they offer treatment to any refugee asking for help as long as he/she is well identified and has the refugee document. This seems to be a great progress and we understood this is a new situation as two weeks earlier this was not the case. However, many refugees are still not aware about this new development.
Both health centers we visited faced the same challenges: The maximum expenses they could spend on treatment to refugees is $25. Which means they only offer the most basic treatment. Many refugees are extremely poor, they do not even have enough food in order to take medicine which must be consumed on full stomach, they have no money for transport to the health center. Many must travel far to the nearest health center and some are living alone and therefore do not have anyone to take them to hospital when they cannot reach there themselves.
Medical care must be accessible to all refugees regardless of where they live, or the area where they have been registered.
Revise the contract between Health Centers and UNHCR Partners to include more medical treatments to needs refugees have,
Put in place preventive programmes focusing on health and other needs by informing and empowering refugees themselves,
Provide the health centers with Ambulances and Canteens which will provide food to the most vulnerable and those suffering from malnutrition,
Remove the condition of presenting a health care card and stop charging refugees 10% of the total treatment cost, in order to make health care totally free and accessible to refugees,
Investigate more about the 10% of the total cost which refugees are required to pay after medical treatment,
Put in place a clear communication strategy and information session to all refugees about their health care options and opportunities,
More than 90% of the adults we talked to indicated that they have never been to school because of all the hardship and wars they have lived through since 1996. Only around 10% indicated that they attended either two or three years in a primary school in D.R.Congo. In this context, more than 85% of the homes we visited didn’t send their children to school. The families explained that the existing schools are private and they cannot afford the high fees required.
There are no existing initiatives for adults’ education opportunities. This is despite the fact that there are various churches in the area which could consider offering this service as a way to support the population. Most of the adults we interviewed expressed an interest in learning a practical skill which can help them getting an income.
We must consider refugee children as a key priority for educational initiatives and funding. Mobilize different partners to get involved in building such programs,
Put in place adult education and vocational skill development initiatives,
Keeping in mind that the current living conditions and food insecurity are likely to jeopardize education efforts, it is urgent to ensure that these refugees have stable living conditions,
Motivate refugee children to go to schools in different ways like school materials, books and other necessities including a school Canteen for them,
Sources of income
In Nyiragongo refugees we visited are unable to cultivate their food and must buy their food and all other needs because the area is developing and urbanizing as the town of Goma is expanding. Unfortunately, refugees have very limited income options. More than 70% of our interviewees indicated they earn their living by collecting firewood in Virunga National Park, 40% of them were women. This is an illegal and dangerous activity. There are many cases of rape and other sexual assaults of refugee women in Nyiragongo during their entries to the forest. The main victims are single women who are obliged to go into the forest alone because they do not have anyone to escort them. The areas where they collect firewood are dominated by various armed rebel groups who are responsible for these sexual abuses.
People who have some capital to invest make their own micro businesses. Married women often receive this initial sum from their husbands, which allows them to open their small business. The nature of these businesses was not yet investigated, but the owners contested that despite their efforts, the businesses are not profitable as they are not trained in business.
The last economic activity we encountered is paid agricultural work in other people’s fields. This activity seems to be rare and unprofitable, as workers get only 2,000 Frc per day (about $1). Elderly women were more involved in this activity, stating that it was their only way to get an income.
Train refugees in different vocational skills such as hand crafts, tailoring, hair dressing and saloon, as well as construction and mechanics,
Train refugees in business, microfinancing, and savings,
Create projects which would support these refugees with startup capital,
Offer them jobs or volunteer opportunities in different organizations such as interpreters, community workers, etc.
Make it a policy that any organization working on refugee issues must employ refugees as at least 30% of their total staff.
Generally, refugees are living in mixed societies with Congolese populations in their communities. This is the situation also in Nyiragongo. Refugees have Congolese neighbors, share the same church, markets, schools, and many other social activities. One thing which is common to all refugees is that they keep the fact that they are Rwandan refugees as a secret from their Congolese neighbors. In our efforts to find out about this, 100% of refugees we interviewed indicated that they have never told their fellow Congolese that they are refugees. “No, they do not know and I cannot tell them, because they may discriminate me or hurt me. This is because so many Congolese still have bad feelings about the way Rwandan people abused them in the past, and also because of my security. I fear they can forcefully send me back to Rwanda”.
“In order to survive here and in many parts of D.R.Congo we pretend to be Congolese and call ourselves “Hutus from Rutshuru” and this has helped us to get the Congolese Voter’s Card which allows us to move freely. We get these cards because the security services mainly DGM (migration, and the ANR = the Intelligence service) do not accept our refugee IDs, when they see you with a refugee ID they arrest you and then take you back to Rwanda by force” a refugee indicated. This issue was not yet verified by this research, but we will keep investigating it.
“Many Congolese think that most of us are either a part of “Interahamwe which are Rwandan armed groups based in Congo” or related to them and that we do so many things together, sometimes my neighbors call me ‘a wife to Interamwe’ but I do not even know how these rebels look like. Many Congolese do not know that many amongst us are pastors, and other good people.”
In our efforts to interact with Congolese people living in the area we visited two churches, some of the reactions we received from the congregations where hostile towards refugees, wanting them to return to their country.
Urgent need to inform Congolese people about refugees in eastern Congo and the reasons for their need of asylum,
Organize refugees to be more visible and become more involved in their communities,
To make refugees a useful human resource through social engagement and economic activities,
On the refugee documents
In the areas we visited, the majority of Rwandan refugees do not have the necessary refugee documents because they did not go through the verification process. Only 1/4 have received the refugee status document. One of the explanations we heard was: “we thought that the verification was a political move initiated by Rwanda in order to identify us and then send soldiers to kill us, arrest us and send us back to Rwanda. Even those who registered and went through the verification process, tend to shift to a different area because of this fear. But even us who decided to go for the verification, we do not understand why we had to do that and what is the importance of this refugee paper, we only keep these papers in our homes as they serve for nothing.”
With the absence of humanitarian actors supporting refugees, with the absence of relief aid to refugees, and the absence of protection against violent attacks by various armed groups in Eastern Congo, many do not see the benefit of identifying themselves as refugees and seeking a refugee status.
In order to make the refugee status meaningful serious actions must be taken by UNHCR and the Government of Congo such as:
Create official settlements for refugees and ensure that these settlements are fully secured by both the Congolese Army and the United Nations Mission in D.R.Congo,
Put an end to the involuntary repatriation process to refugees,
Ensure that refugees have access to humanitarian relief aid wherever they are,
Engage with DGM, the Police, and the ANR to allow free movement of refugees who have refugee documents, and engage with other stakeholders to respect and consider refugee documents,
Ensure an efficient registration process by CNR at their offices to all refugees and embark on awareness programs about the registration opportunities and the related refugee rights.
What should be done?
Refugees we interviewed do not understand why they are unable to access humanitarian relief aid, or why they never received the money which was given to refugees during the period of COVID19. Not only the people in Nyiragongo but also those in Goma do not understand why their fellow refugees are not considered as potential beneficiaries for humanitarian relief aid. Rhoda, the representative of urban refugees in Goma, said “I’m so much affected by this, most of the complicated cases of refugees who come to me and do need assistance are refugees from Nyiragongo but UNHCR has refused to help them, we must do all we can to ensure that all refugees get help, but all my efforts are not supported by UNHCR. I do not know the exact reasons why they are not helped, and they are accused of being connected to rebels”.
Most of the refugees we interviewed asked to be relocated to a refugee camp or settlement where they can live in peace. At least 98% of these refugees said they want to stay in a camp or a settlement, as long as it is placed far from the Rwandan border. An elderly woman said “ Ooh my God, you are talking about a refugee camp? I do not know when I will see that happen, in case it becomes a reality, on that day I will sleep the whole day, and will praise God, I want to see myself in place where I’m staying in a house and no one will come to stand on my door at the end of the month, being helped with food and I will not be worried about food? I wish that such an opportunity comes right now”. However, during our meeting with UNHCR Goma on March 5th, 2021 UNHCR indicated that according to information on her possession “refugees in North Kivu do not want to go to the camps” and that it is much safer for them to maintain that low-profile for their security reasons. UNHCR Goma cited the Policy on Alternative to Camp of 2014. That UNHCR Policy encourages “refugee settlements in their various forms instead of camps”, but none has been applied to these refugees in Nyiragongo, neither the settlement nor the camp.
Surprisingly, when we moved in various places in Goma, we found so many houses are being built or petitioned using the UNHCR and IOM Tents. These tents are being sold on roadsides, in shops and in various markets. When we asked, we were told that they buy these tents from Internally Displaced Persons, yet refugees do not receive these tents in order to make their homes.
On the issue of humanitarian relief aid:
UNHCR seems to be vague, and no clear response is available on inclusive humanitarian relief aid and livelihood alternatives to refugees in North Kivu. However, during our meeting they referred us to the refugee committee which also didn’t provide any answers.
In response to this we are very aware about the security threats faced by refugees but we also believe that there are opportunities available to mitigate such threats. Over the years it has been proven that the Congolese army and the UN Mission in D.R.Congo have managed to protect Congolese in their IDP camps. This can also be done for refugees. We have observed that over the years that Rwanda is very active in hunting key people, mainly: those who participated in the Genocide, those who are opposed to the current Rwandan Regime, and those who are mostly critical to the current regime in Rwanda. This does not concern mere refugees. However, if insecurity caused by the Rwandan government is really the issue, we obviously should not keep refugees at less than 10km distance from the borders with Rwanda. It is important to note that Rwandan security services are still active in eastern D.R.Congo and in case keeping refugees’ security was their objective, they could have killed all these refugees already. We believe that it is difficult for a refugee wanted by Rwanda to hide in Goma, even if he/she is pretending to be a Congolese.
Therefore, the argument of security threats does not justify UNHCR’s lack of adequate protection measures towards refugees.
Many refugees are worried about their immediate fate because recently many are being chased away from the homes and the only migration option they perceive is to invade the National Park “people are now chasing us from their homes because they want to build good houses here, we only have one option to move up in those hills and invade the National Park, but the problem remains that there are so many rebel groups there in the National Park”.
It seems ironical that with the vast areas within this country that remain uninhabited, people are concerned about where to stay. We engaged with two Kings and they were willing to give lands to refugees on condition that the land will be developed and that this will lead to the initiation of development programs in their Kingdoms.
While UNHCR is called upon to understand the political ground on which it operates, the position of UNHCR Goma towards the effective protection of refugees seems confusing, therefore we urge for the following:
UNHCR should strongly call to various actors in conflicts about the obligation to protect refugees wherever they may be hiding,
The need to extend protection and humanitarian relief aid to refugees should be respected by all actors, and through their partners, UNHCR Goma should make this clear to all parties in conflicts,
UNHCR Goma should sincerely investigate for why refugees are not receiving help and criminalize the denial of humanitarian relief aid to refugees,
UNHCR Goma should mobilize various other actors to come in and support refugees,
UNHCR should urgently review their operational strategy and protection policies in order to ensure services to each refugee,
UNHCR should quickly embark on the various activities aiming a mobilizing the International Community in order to put a particular attention on the situation of refugees in eastern D.R.Congo,
About the Global Refugee Leaders Forum/ Humanite Plus
We are a programme of Humanite Plus based in Goma, North Kivu/ D.R.Congo.
We intend to bring together refugee leaders, former refugees and all those who are engaged in refugee affairs in order to promote the culture of refugee rights and refugee well-being. We believe in diversity and we are specific on a particular mission because of the diversity of refugee of members. We are involved in all that is related to the life of refugees everywhere in the world.
Our efforts currently are focused on making the Democratic Republic of Congo one among the best countries in the world where refugees enjoy their rights.
Current Activities in Goma
Visibility of refugees:
In order to think about solutions, we believe that we should acknowledge the fact that there are refugees in D,R.Congo and that they have many difficulties. We have begun with the following activities: opening an office, building a website, and finding a space for various meetings.
Weekly meetings, regular information sessions, community dialogues, field visits, and trainings for refugees,
Social Media: We have opened two Whatsapp Groups,
Events: We organize different events bringing together refugees,
Networking: This helps us to link refugees with other opportunities,
Legal support: This provides legal assistance to refugees in conflict with the law,
Following up cases: This helps to find solutions to various problems affecting refugees,
Contact building: We are also engaged with various stakeholders at various levels in order to make an efficient collaborated effort towards the protection of refugees.
Jackson Baguma Ntamuzinda
Global Refugee Leaders Forum/ Humanite Plus
Registration Number: 0453/2009/0454
Av. Kituku I, after La Sapientia University, Kyeshero, Goma – D.R.Congo
Tel: +243973704159/ +243999978331