Advocacy Note on behalf of vocal refugee leaders in Goma the Democratic Republic of Congo

Advocacy Note on behalf of vocal refugees in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): They are not mere refugees but they shoulder the whole burden of others, yet no one supports them. As some human rights defenders organizations held a workshop in Kinshasa on Thursday March 10th, 2022 on legitimizing and advocacy for the protection of human rights defenders.

We observed this ugly reality, that no refugee human rights defender in DRC was invited to attend this workshop yet they mostly needed it, we observed that for the last 5 years no vocal refugee has benefited support from other human rights defenders in DRC, and no one actually has ever been trained.

The United Nations adopted a wonderful declaration on who is a human rights defender, but often various organizations seem to put in place discriminatory policies against refugee human rights defenders, some organizations do even deny the existence of refugee human rights defenders, some organizations do claim they cannot support refugee HRDs because of the conflict of interests with their strategic partner UNHCR especially when UNHCR is viewed as the perpetrator. They remain largely unknown, they face so many excuses why they cannot be supported and they are quickly told to seek help from UNHCR and yet in many cases the same UNHCR plays different roles in their oppression, sometimes they told support is only to national human rights defenders.

Despite the existence of Human Rights Defenders organizations, their services seem to be based on who the person is rather than what the person does, in brief the identity of the person instead of the activities of the person towards others. It is then on this ground that we bring to your attention Refugee Human Rights Defenders in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Background about refugees in eastern DRC.

Since 1990 the eastern DRC received thousands of refugees mainly from Burundi and Rwanda, until now we still observe asylum seekers coming from other countries like Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda among others. The exact number of refugees in eastern DRC is not yet known because they have never been registered despite of being in the country over the years and as such they do not have access to humanitarian relief aid because they are not known. In such a situation it is almost impossible to argue about the protection of refugees and asylum seekers who are not identified by UNHCR and the DRC government.

We estimate that more than 1,500,000 refugees are living in eastern DRC among them only less than 10% may be identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Congolese National Commission for Refugees known as (CNR), currently only around 1,000 refugees have valid documents and only around 150 refugees may have access some forms of humanitarian relief aid, especially in North Kivu.

Abuses against refugees in eastern DRC

Refugees in eastern DRC are often victims of various forms of abuses, forced recruitment into rebel groups, victims of various forms of killings, massacre by various armed groups, victims of killings perpetrated by the host communities, and other forms of hostility, arbitrary arrests, various forms of sexual abuses, lack of education, no access to health services, among others.

Refugee Human Rights Defenders in DRC

In this hostile environment exceptional refugees have come up to stand for others and defend them but also to guide them and help them to live a better life. We estimate at more than 100 active vocal refugees in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo engaged in different issues at the community levels. Some play roles as whistle-blowers, others as community leaders, others as opinion leaders, and others as human rights activists. Their work is so great and vital for the entire refugee population especially in eastern DRC where we have very few organizations engaged in the promotion and protection of refugee rights. Generally these vocal refugees remain the sole option for the whole refugee population.

But in doing what they can for their communities, they face also so many challenges, risks and various forms of problems at different levels. Sometimes they face hostility from other refugees especially when they engage on issues about observing the law and other negative practices done by members in the community such as sexual and gender based violence against women, child soldiers, and the whole war activities. Sometimes they face hostility from various armed groups, sometimes they are threatened by government and humanitarian actors who gain a lot from the ignorance of refugees by diverting humanitarian relief aid.

Their situation is too bad as they are confronted with so many problems related to their field of work and to their convictions about refugee rights in eastern DRC. Here are some brief stories they are facing. For security purpose we shall not put their true names and their pictures.

Some few cases of these refugee HRDs

Arinde is a vocal refugee, he came from his country in 2009, he engaged various actors on the problem of Congolese who are believed to have been registered as refugees from Burundi and on the disappearance of the humanitarian relief aid which does not reach the true refugee victims. In response he faced various forms of threats and intimidations from government officials who called him a terrorist and danger to peace and security in eastern DRC. As such he cannot even access aid from UNHCR and other partners. “The last time I lived in my own house was in 2016, after that authorities accused me of so many things and cut off all my possibilities to survive as a way of forcing me to leave here towards Uganda”. To sleep at night I have to depend on the support from people of good will, sometimes I sleep in some religious facilities just outside or in the veranda, eating also is another problem, this is the only shoe I have and all my clothes are now finished. But still most of time and energy I do refugee work, and I do not regret for this because I feel bad when I see refugees are suffering.

Ngonga is a vocal refugee in eastern DRC, he is one among vocal refugees who is able to collect information and contacts from various stakeholders and has often communicated to them through either phone calls, sms, messages on WhatsApp about the situation of refugees. He is very week known by various actors within the refugee regime and because of that he has faced various security problems, problems with his family members, and in order to manage him, recently unknown people attacked him and the purpose of the attack was to get his phone which they did and the security services could not help him. Ngonga lost also his house because he could not manage to pay rent, and now he depends on friends.

Boaze is a vocal refugee in eastern DRC, he is connected to many refugee leaders in the whole DRCongo and because of that he is quick to collect the necessary information about the situation of refugees. He is currently living in hiding as he is being hunted by security operatives believed to come from Rwanda.

We may not share all the stories of these vocal refugees but we believe these three may attract your attention in order to put in place appropriate actions that can support the work of refugee human rights defenders.

We propose few things for those in difficult situations.

Those facing security should be supported with what they may need to reduce risks,

All vocal refugees need training in human rights, peace education, and leadership among others,

Vocal refugees in eastern DRC should be considered to have access to income generating activities that help them to survive,

Vocal refugees in eastern DRC should be exposed to various advocacy opportunities for their development.

Kulihoshi Musikami Luc

In-charge of Refugees and Foreigners