Open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Mr. Philippo Grandi during his visit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo from April 20 -23rd, 2021
It is with a great pleasure that we have been informed about your visit in D.R.Congo in general and in Eastern D.R.Congo in particular specifically in Goma. We humbly welcome you and wish you all the best during your stay in D.R.Congo. However the aim of your visit remains up to now uncertain to many stakeholders including refugees who intend to meet you, and this presents the challenges to focus on particular issues and to formulate clear recommendations which could have supported the success of your mission in D.R.Congo.
We observed number of scenarios and incidences before the announced visit to D.R.Congo, here in Goma for example we were informed about refugees who died almost every day due to sicknesses and who were not exposed to adequate medical treatment during the month of January and February 2021. Shortly UNHCR announced that it will reduce assistance to refugees in urban areas from 50 people to 15 people now, accelerated repatriations of so many people who deserve to be refugees and be protected during the month of March, and encouraging refugees to believe that they are self-integrated locally.
Your presence comes at a timely and appropriate moment when D.R.Congo is facing various situations. On one hand the current regime promising the “rule of the Law” which should benefit from refugees in order to end the current situation of practices towards refugees which are not in conformity with existing legal policies, and the commitment made in your presence by the President of D.R.Congo in 2019 in Addis- Ababa towards the protection of refugees, and on the other hand the deterioration of security in eastern part where you will stay briefly which is critical in the refugee protection process.
Strategically you have come, few days when the country has just announced the formation of the new government which is not yet in place, this alone brings opportunities to engage with the new government officials as they start their new term in offices but also may not be effective because they may not be held accountable for their actions as per now. But also being part of the Global community D.R.Congo is affected by the COVID19 pandemic which restrictions put in place gives you little opportunities to interact with a wider range of stakeholders in order to have a package of diverse views for inclusive solutions towards problems affecting refugees.
With the current situation of refugees especially in the eastern part of the country mainly here in Goma, we would like your presence to bring concrete solutions to the following challenges:
The current UNHCR operational policies put in place do not create, promote and increase the protection space to refugees and asylum seekers on contrary some of the existing policies are harmful and contradict UNHCR mandates. The situation of refugees in eastern D.R.Congo is unique and requires approaches which are appropriate to such situation. It is urgent to review all the existing UNHCR Operational policies in place in order to learn a lesson from what has been well done and quickly discourage existing policies that violates refugee rights.
As believes Amnesty International in some of their publications “ the gun in itself is not a problem, the gums becomes dangerous when there is a person holding it in bad intentions”, we also believe that putting in place good UNHCR Operational Policies are not enough, they are meaningful when they are being implemented by UNHCR staffs in good faith.
This should also may be accompanied by a clear selection of UNHCR staffs who will implement policies put in place and putting measures in place to hold errant UNHCR staffs accountable. Some among UNHCR staffs are perceived as residing in neighboring countries where a high number of refugees originate from, and their belief about responses towards refugee problems are almost similar to political statements from some countries where these refugees come from summarized as “doing everything that is possible to put refugees in a situation that they will have no any other options apart from going back to their countries which is surprisingly baptized as voluntary repatriation”. That does not enhance trust and credibility of the UNHCR staffs on ground rather fosters the perception of refugees who consider that UNHCR is part of their problems, and this may justify the move of certain armed groups which reject and influence some refugees to distance from any UNHCR services. For example the persistent allegations from refugees that some UNHCR staffs working in Goma do reside in Rwanda cannot effectively advance the protection of refugees in eastern D.R.Congo as this may be marked by conflict of interests. This is also the same situation with the UNHCR staffs who are viewed as citizens of the countries where refugees come from, such arrangement jeopardizes all efforts towards the protection of refugees. The other part of the reality is the UNHCR staffs who have stayed for many years in offices here in Goma and in the exercise of their duties have taken controversial decisions against refugees and are viewed as the enemies of so many refugees.
Basing on our observations only 2/10 refugees in North Kivu are registered by UNHCR and CNR, we humbly request you to open the registration process for all refugees and to ensure that each person has access to a fairer process to be granted the refugee status.
Humanitarian Relief Aid is another area of great concern, refugees and other persons of UNHCR concerns are living in a dire situation in North Kivu, we would like to hear from you about urgent plans being put in place to ensure that each refugee has opportunity to choose either to live in a settlement or not, to have access to food, shelter, medical treatment, education and adequate security measures. Refugees in Nyiragongo we talked to are impatiently waiting for that opportunity to live in a “refugee settlement”. On the other side, we are hearing more of arguments and logics why refugees should not get humanitarian assistance, yet the humanitarian aid is not given because UNHCR staffs want it to be given but because it is necessary to save lives and to increase opportunities for refugee protection. A UNHCR staff in Goma is believed to have said “how can I explain to donors to give me money for food to refugees who have been here for the last 25 years?”, but also in Nyiragongo a refugee told us “I came from Rwanda in 1994, and since 1996 up to 2019 I was running from various wars here in eastern Congo, this is the only two years I have lived here without running”.
Durable solutions to refugees are among others issues we would have appreciated your office to focus on, especially refugee resettlement to the third countries where UNHCR plays a frontline role. Good enough countries have made it clear that they want refugees, Congolese people do want to know why UNHCR does not consider this options to some refugees? Recently the speaker of Parliament in Kinshasa alerted the international community to assume her responsibilities towards refugees.
UNHCR staffs in Goma are viewed saying that they do not want to hear about this option, but want refugees to integrate themselves in their host communities, with all the risks of violence we all know this may have in the current situation in D.R.Congo where refugees may be easily assimilated to those wanting to acquire or grab either land or Congolese nationality.
We remain perplexed with the inactions of UNHCR during difficult situations refugees are confronted with such as during wars and violence. The recent ones are when refugees who were affected by violence in Buene Nyiragongo, Rutcsuru and Masisi among others would have benefited from urgent interventions done by well-coordinated humanitarian organizations. At this point urgent needs assessment could have been done, and appropriate responses in place, looking at the vulnerability of refugees during the time of violence. Such move helps us to appreciate that interventions towards refugees should be based on approaches of equity but not general reactions based on equality with host communities.
A group of refugees and asylum seekers who mostly are vocal and critical on various refugee issues feel like they are being punished by the system because of their conscience. They are being subjected to intimidations, threats, blackmailing, character assassination, cannot benefit from existing opportunities, and facing various acts aiming at isolating them from other refugees and showing other refugees that those who defend them are dangerous people to avoid, in most cases they are used as worse examples in order to intimidate other refugees who would like to raise up their voices. Efforts should be done quickly to support and encourage these vocal refugees to speak up, and UNHCR should be much opened to criticism and encourage refugees to be much critical to the manner in which refugee affairs are being conducted.
Improve the security of refugees through a strong partnership with others stakeholders. With the United Nations Mission in D.R.Congo, and the Congolese Army, there are great opportunities to capitalize in order to ensure the security of refugees are improved through effective measures of “refugee settlements”. With your presence it should be an opportunity to invite more partners to support the work of UNHCR in D.R.Congo, particularly in the eastern parts of the country.
We remain hopeful that your visit was animated by the great desire to improve the situation, but we remain also skeptical that it may end up in a mere tourism aiming at simple political calculations which may not bring influence to the situation of refugees. So far the manner in which your presence is marked does not assure us and we are so far imagining the outcomes of your interactions which key actors you intend to meet in Goma, many among them do not hold convictions of strong engagements in the refugee protection process.
Yet over the years, Congolese people have been yearning for the effective involvement of UNHCR in order to solve once for all the problematic posed by the presence of refugees in eastern part of the country, the solution to problems related to refugees is one among the lasting solutions to peace in eastern D.R.Congo. And the failure to reach to such a consensus to solve refugee problems is a clear sentence pronounced against Congolese people who just want to live in peace.
The Global Refugee Leaders Forum under the Humanite Plus is much available to support any efforts aiming at increasing the protection space to refugees and distances itself from any acts that threatens the protection of refugees. We remain engaged to hearing from you what you plan to put in place in order to improve the situation of refugees in eastern Congo. We are impatiently waiting to read the clear position from UNHCR towards the above described situation of refugees as soon as you conclude your visit.
Jackson Baguma Ntamuzinda