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Open letter to UNHCR: Open letter to UNHCR Goma: Drawing the attention of the deterioration of the situation of Refugees in North Kivu DRCongo

Copy for information to:

His Excellency the Governor of the Province

Goma / North Kivu DR Congo

To the Head of Antenna

National Commission for Refugees

C.N.R North Kivu / D.R.Congo

To the Regional Representative

United Nations High Commissioner

For Refugees (UNHCR)

Kinshasa – D.R.Congo

To the Permanent Secretary of

National Commission for Refugees C.N.R

Kinshasa, R.D.Congo,

To the President of the Civil Society Coordination Force Vive

Goma, North Kivu / D.R.Congo

To the Head of Antenna of North Kivu

National Commission for Human Rights

Goma, North Kivu / D.R.Congo

To Refugee Representatives

North Kivu / R.D.Congo

 

 The Representative

United Nations High Commissioner

  For Refugees (UNHCR),

Sub-Delegation of Goma – R.D.Congo

We draw your attention to the urgency of getting more involved in redressing the deteriorating refugee situation in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

The very first sentence of the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which UNHCR uses in all her documents and her public communication states: “Considering that the recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the family human rights and their equal and inalienable rights constitute the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”,

Referring to our letter of May 10, 2021 addressed to you on the illegal practices in place which would be the basis of the massive violations of the rights of refugees in North Kivu, DRCongo,

Observing that the Democratic Republic of Congo is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, the 1969 OAU Convention, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the establishment of Congolese policy of 2002 regulating refugees,

Referring to the UNHCR Global Policy of 2009 on the protection of refugees in urban settings, as well as that of 2014 on alternative solutions to the problems of refugees outside camps, as well as the UNHCR’s global responsibility to account on refugee protection,

We come to you to draw your attention on the degradation of the life of the refugees in North Kivu and to remind you of the persistence of the arbitrary and illegal practices which reduce the space of protection to the thousands of refugees, as we had indicated it in our letter above mentioned. This letter is part of our civic approach to make our contribution and our advocacy efforts to resolve refugee problems as we always say “refugees in North Kivu are not problems but they have problems”.

This letter also comes in a particular situation at present where we are observing unrest among the refugees who are running out of patience and think they would defy are defying the orders of the State of Siege for collective and public claims actions to vindicate their rights. While this is legal and legitimate, we believe your Office would pay more attention to other forms of expression such as this letter.

These last three months have been marked by the establishment of the State of Siege, the direct consequences on refugees would be the persistence of allegations indicating arbitrary arrests, detention to unknown places of the refugees while others are reported missing, like the case of Angelo, of which we have no trace since May 26, 2021. But also the military operations in Masisi seem to push a considerable number of refugees towards the city of Goma where they live without UNHCR interventions despite our efforts to alert you.

We continue to follow statements in the media that portray refugees as armed groups as well as messages of hatred towards refugees who are often identified as “Rwandan infiltrators”.

Our recent visit to the Munzenze central prison in Goma has brought to light cases of refugees who are either arbitrarily detained, have suffered unfair sentences or are waiting for more than 5 years to be fixed about their fate. They do not have access to legal representation, and the social situation of their families remains unknown to UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations.

The eruption of the Nyiragongo Volcano also claimed victims among refugees who remain forgotten until now as the national efforts seem focus on local populations. Some refugees who lost their homes have benefited from a form of assistance through AIDES and this is very commendable, but all the same there is a constant lack of the willingness to identify all the victims but also to want to understand the consequences of the Volcano on the lives of refugees in Goma as well as other affected areas.

We have already identified four categories of refugees who suffer the negative effects of the volcano: Refugees who welcomed other people into their homes and with them they consumed all their economy, refugees who fled the volcano and lost everything during their flight, refugees whose houses were swept away by the Volcano and the refugees who are currently being chased into houses and plots because the Congolese want to build in these places considered to be spared from the Volcano.

Since May 2021 until now we have not yet observed interventions to alleviate the suffering of all these people, while this would have been an opportunity for the UNHCR to effectively present the problems of the refugees of Nyiragongo who have been left aside from humanitarian interventions on the basis of myths.

The presence the UNHCR Kinshasa delegation promised to provide assistance to the refugees affected by the Volcano according to an interview broadcasted by the RTNC and by other media, but so far the refugees in their diversity are asking questions about this promise which seems slow to come.

And to make life of refugees very difficult, they are particularly affected by the COVID19 which had already found their economy non-existent anymore, but we do observe that until then UNHCR has not yet considered interventions to relieve these refugees who are impatiently waiting for a relief.

Three months have already passed and we observe that there is not a big positive change on the facts which we had indicated in our letter and we are very concerned about that in the presence of UNHCR which would be a blessing for thousands of refugees in Eastern DRCongo.

We have already noticed a single meeting between UNHCR with the Urban Refugee Committee of Goma and Karisimbi but also a single Open Day, we encourage such initiatives which should be regular and which should extend to other refugees throughout the North. –Kivu, unfortunately this has not yet been the case. We also did request that such meetings be an opportunity to share knowledge, fight myths and stereotypes, exchange information on the situation of refugees on the ground as well as the establishment of solutions, draw responsibilities but above all an opportunity to build a consensus on how to respond to refugee problems.

We regret to notice that apart from the urban refugees who are estimated at least 3,000 other refugees are not represented in decision-making as well as participation in their affairs because they do not have a committee that represents them at each level. The refugees who may be close to you are those who are in Nyiragongo and Sake whose eruption of the Volcano could have taught us the urgency of setting up a Refugee Committee in this area and in others such as in Masisi, Lubero, Rutshuru, Beni, Butembo, Walikale which are strongly affected by the State of Siege and which host a large number of refugees. These crises currently observed could not be a pretext for UNHCR to respond with a low profile or withdrawal as it is perceived but rather propel UNHCR to the front lines at the center of every refugee’s life.

We have observed since January 2021 that UNHCR has not even tried to set up a communication strategy with the refugees in North Kivu as there is no poster, no SMS, no Communiqué to the Press or the media, and no physical encounter among many other strategies could have been used in order to keep refugees in contact with UNHCR. The strategy of distance put in place by UNHCR in the daily life of refugees as we have observed for a long time in the following events: With COVID19 UNHCR is absent, with the State of Siege UNHCR is absent, World Refugee Day UNHCR Goma was invisible and with the eruption of the Nyiragongo Volcano UNHCR remains absent so far.

This would place UNHCR in a state of refugee abandonment and raises several questions about the capacity of UNHCR Goma leadership to solve problems, motivate refugees, inspire refugees, guide refugees and ensure UNHCR’s presence in their efforts of resilience. On contrary we have observed the establishment of a strategy of wanting to deny the responsibilities and the total rejection of refugees who are outside Goma and often the lack of a clear position towards the refugees who need services especially medical care among other services.

Some of UNHCR’s partner medical centers such as Ushirika, and Tout est Grace claim medical care for refugees in a selective and discriminatory manner under the pretext of a contract with AIDES which is your partner, despite our multiple requests and alerts on this practice of exclusion but we do not find any progress although the UNHCR protection team has tried to intervene in some cases of sick refugees, while for others their bills are still unpaid in these two medical centers.

This lack of ardent leadership would push UNHCR Goma to distance itself from the legal and legitimate demands of each refugee to access medical care, food, housing and education for their children, to live in peace and security, to dream for a better future through the three durable solutions. In additional to this the need to be well identified and have a refugee card that allows everyone to move freely in this country is highly compromised.

Some refugees have so far been conditioned to reside either in Goma or Karisimbi in order to hope for some form of UNHCR assistance which even seems difficult to define because UNHCR remains very unclear on these activities towards refugees in North Kivu and no one has a clear idea of ​​what UNHCR is doing for refugees. The establishment of bureaucratic structures like the Mutuelle de Santé greatly reduces access to medical care for many refugees. Only in Goma health service do go through 5 structures in Goma to reach the same refugee in Goma.

The lack of an effective communication strategy has collapsed UNHCR’s strengths in helping refugees, partners as well as the local population to appreciate what UNHCR has already done, what UNHCR is doing and what UNHCR plans to do to respond effectively to the problems of refugees in North Kivu.

Although the CNR estimates that the refugees in Goma would be more around 3000, we estimate that the refugees in Goma would be more than 10,000 but also the CNR indicates that North Kivu would have 100,000 refugees but we estimate that it would have more than 700,000 who remain without an identity and we seem to see the manifest lack of will to ensure that every refugee has a refugee card.

Certain documents, especially the attestation of refugees which are seen be delivered by the C.N.R in collaboration with UNHCR Goma, have the following sentence “Refugee status does not automatically give the right to assistance”. This appears to be a deliberate and formalized violation of the rights of refugees who need these services as a fundamental right on which depend their lives. This seems to be maintained as refugees continue to ask themselves many questions about the importance of refugee status and many of whom find themselves unable to help others appreciate why it is so important to register as refugees. This devaluation of the status of refugees feeds the mistrust of many people and is said to be one of the causes that would push them to resort to the Congolese Voter Card, a practice to which UNHCR and the CNR remain silent.

This invites us to share with you that human rights are “Universal, Inalienable, Indivisible and Interdependent”. And even these refugee documents do not allow them access to various services such as free movement, banking, telephone communication among many others. Airtel Congo, for example, told us that it obliges refugees to come with the Voter Card to buy a SimCard. The refugees would not be free to move around using their documents, in May 2021 some refugees who were moving because of the Volcano indicated having been arrested at Mubambiro towards Sake because they did not have the Voter’s Card, they were released after having paid money to the security services.

Based on several testimonies from refugees who participate in our weekly meetings as well as our various visits to Nyiragongo as we indicated in our report to you on the situation of refugees in this part, we noticed that these refugees have remained abandoned for long to them themselves, seek other means necessary to continue to survive and to draw our attention to their visibility and the problems they face, this search for a way to express themselves has led some to be recruited by armed groups while others continue to plunder the natural resources of the DRC, including underground minerals, as well as the deforestation of the Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

And again all this remains unnoticed by UNHCR and the CNR, curiously although UNHCR remains ambiguous on its position towards each person who would be in armed groups with a valid reason or not, the CNR continues to apply a policy of demonization towards these refugees members of armed groups, which does not encourage their reduction as wanted and desired by our central government. For a lasting peace, everyone should play their part of responsibility and this would require effective management and protection of refugees in eastern DRC, for which you are guided by the United Nations policy of sharing responsibilities.

Having observed like so many other actors in the world that Rwanda is not yet safe for all its citizens, we observe with dismay the maintenance in place of the harmful policy aimed at forced repatriation of refugees to Rwanda, often in complicity with the MONUSCO. The CNR estimates that since 2010 more than 170,000 refugees have been repatriated to Rwanda, a large part of which is believed to have returned back to DRC, as we observed with the case of 19 refugees arrested in Kibati on May 19, 2021. According to our estimates 4/10 Rwandan refugees who arrive at our office have already been repatriated in the past but they have again fled to the Congo. While others are believed to have moved towards Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi where they are alleged being registered as Congolese refugees, as well as the lingering claims of those refugees who are still returning and who could either form or join an armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

We also notice a deliberate violation of the right of refugees to possess a refugee card because these cards are granted to certain refugees in a discriminatory manner and without any explanation likely to convince why this differing treatment while other refugees only possession the refugee attestation. But also it is incomprehensible to note that some asylum seekers could have waited even more than 10 years without action on their requests when we have UNHCR and CNR in this country.

Although there is an officially recognized Urban Refugee Committee which should validly represent the refugees, there are suspicions about the establishment of another parallel leadership which seems to be more secret which would be maintained by the CNR and AIDES, but also the allegations about the existence of refugees who are set up to spy on, divide and discourage others for the benefit of certain organizations whose direct victims are refugee opinion leaders who believe that they can no longer access services offered by AIDES because of their views they share on how to effectively respond to refugee issues.

In connection with the OAU convention supplemented by the UNHCR policy, refugees must stay at least 50km from the border of their country of origin but we note that the refugees in Goma are either a few meters from the border especially in Bujovu , Birere and Kibati, but also less than 3Km from the border, especially in the Commune of Goma and Karisimbi and so many other areas which are considered as places of residence for refugees.

We observe with bitterness that thousands of refugees do not have places of residence officially recognized by UNHCR and CNR despite the facts that these refugees exist, but also we are worried about the visibility of UNHCR in interventions towards internally displaced persons in the world in detriment of the refugees who constitute the traditional mandate of UNHCR as well as the policy of privileging the partnership with other organizations which focus on the Internally Displaced while their traditional mandate as well as in other countries is on the refugees as we observe with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) among other organizations based in Goma.

Recommendations

By respecting the current measures in the fight against COVID19, UNHCR must be visible through concrete actions in the situation of refugees, and strengthen her relationship with the Urban Refugees Committee,

UNHCR should consider to put in place an effective two-way communication strategy with refugees, host populations and authorities at all levels, and all other stakeholders,

UNHCR should consider to establish effective protection services that aim to restore the value of the status of refugees in eastern DRCongo, develop a strategy favorable to the protection of refugees who have integrated armed groups and put an end to forced repatriation of refugees, especially to Rwanda. The Goma transit camp for departure to Rwanda should in principle be a transit camp for new arrivals,

UNHCR should consider to discourage any politicization of refugees and of services towards refugees who must remain purely humanitarian, by ensuring that these services are available, accessible, affordable, and of good quality for each refugee in eastern DRCongo,

UNHCR should consider to promote and encourage innovative ideas that argue for the establishment of fixed and official places of residence for refugees in North Kivu and finally to increase their opportunity for protection,

UNHCR should consider to urgently support the identification and registration services of each refugee in the territory of North Kivu, and set up awareness-raising campaigns through effective communication that affects each refugee physically,

UNHCR should consider to discourage the current forced repatriations and put in place an in-depth reflection that could lead to an appropriate strategy on these operations in consultation with the refugees, promote the community integration of these refugees who are in armed groups. It is urgent to do more research to properly assess the current repatriations of refugees and finally to provide credible information in order to put an end to the various allegations on these forced repatriations,

UNHCR should consider to establish a system that allows every refugee to access basic humanitarian services, especially housing, food, medical care, education and physical protection. These humanitarian services should be available, accessible, affordable, and of good quality for every refugee in North Kivu,

UNHCR should consider to prioritize civic education to refugees and encourage the promotion of their universal, inalienable, inter-independent, indivisible rights. As well as eradicating the manifest phobia towards human rights, democracy and good governance observed in the humanitarian world,

We believe that UNHCR should consider setting up an effective system of communication with the refugees and with the local population where the refugees reside to promote peaceful coexistence,

UNHCR should consider to engage CNR to remove this sentence denying assistance to refugees and to put in place a strategy to encourage refugees in any situation to seek assistance. Humanitarian assistance to refugees should be seen as an act of justice towards refugees and not as acts of charity,

UNHCR should consider to put in place and develop an ardent leadership that will be up to the task of bringing solutions to the current problems of refugees in North Kivu. Discourage the staff of the UNHCR and its partners to deny the existence of the legitimate demands of refugees to access services and to work more to meet the urgent needs of each refugee without discrimination or distinction related to the country of origin, sex, place of residence, or social rank among others,

UNHCR should consider taking a stand against all practices that would violate the rights of refugees as well as national and international instruments related to the refugee situation, and instruct all partners to observe the rights of refugees in the exercise of their work as well as end the contract with those who would continue to violate the rights of refugees,

UNHCR should consider to urgently review the strategy of low profile and abandonment so that UNHCR places itself among the refugees in search of solutions to their problems. But also claims the effective protection of refugees in other areas besides Goma and Karisimmbi,

UNHCR should consider to put an end to the Mutual Health System by taking the total cost of medical care and making direct contracts with the health centers that exist. Establish a habit of quarterly evaluation of all UNHCR partners,

UNHCR should consider the urgency of setting up a permanent registration system for refugees by the National Commission for Refugees (CNR), at the same time engaging the Congolese government to grant refugee status unconditionally and urgently to all those who have already been waiting for years,

UNHCR should consider to discourage any practice tending to discriminate or deny services to refugees who use their documents delivered by the C.N.R and the H.C.R, and urgently make all refugee documents uniform for all, and ensure that each refugee has a refugee card,

UNHCR should consider an awareness campaign of the International Community to mobilize the necessary funds that can allow her to meet the needs of each refugee who awaits the services from the UNHCR,

UNHCR should consider to having faith in your selflessness to fight for effective protection, we are committed to putting in place urgent and more concrete measures which reassure us of your good will to contribute to the protection of each refugee.

We remain mobilized for the promotion of the rights of refugees in the east of the DRCongo and we continue to mobilize other actors to support the same goal, while remaining vigilant to take other actions of collective claims if we observe that UNHCR remains insensitive to legitimate demands for refugee protection, in relation to Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948,

We ask you to accept, dear Representative of the UNHCR sub-delegation of Goma, the expression of our most respectful tributes.

Done in Goma, North Kivu/ the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 12th, 2021

Jackson Baguma Ntamuzinda

Regional Coordinator

 

 

Author: Kuliloshi Pecos