Calling upon the USA Administration to respond to the humanitarian crisis in DRCongo
One Thing the U.S. Must Do to Protect Human Rights in the Immediate Aftermath of the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
By Samantha Barzaga
December 10, 2023, marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document outlined, for the first time, a fundamental global standard of human rights for universal protection. The Biden administration should commemorate this special occasion by designating Temporary Protected Status for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is a program that allows migrants living in unsafe countries to work and live in the United States for an extendable period of time. The Department of Homeland Secretary can designate a country for TPS if there has been an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or some other extraordinary condition that would not allow nationals to return. Though only one is required, the DRC satisfies all of these requirements.
Since 1996, the Central African region has faced escalating conflict. This is largely due to the First Congo War, beginning in the wake of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. After this genocide, nearly two million Hutu refugees settled in the North and South Kivu provinces. Some of these refugees were Hutu extremists, which led to the organization of militias by Hutu groups, and eventually Tutsi militias to combat these Hutu groups in the Congo. The result was a gruesome war replete with human rights abuses and mass displacement.
The Second Congo War in 1998 was similar to the first war, eventually ending in 2003. It caused around five million deaths, and millions of people remained internally displaced by 2008. These wars have led to ongoing conflict and human rights abuses through today, exacerbated by intervening causes along the way including a severe Ebola outbreak in 2018 and the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 2021.
I spoke with a Congolese refugee who experienced the 1996 conflict firsthand. He lived in the city of Uvira and remembered leaving the Congo in October of 1996. He walked almost 500 kilometers to the city of Kalemie, and on the way witnessed rampant shootings and people running for their lives. He saw a baby get shot, and the mother left the baby and ran away. He recalled people running into lakes and drowning. Someone was beheaded in front of him. He survived by drinking rancid water and consuming tree roots. When he arrived in Kalemie, youths were being recruited to join the rebel soldiers, so he eventually fled to Meheba refugee camp in Zambia. From there he made his way to Zimbabwe, where he met his wife and started a family. He eventually ended up in the United States just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This refugee’s story is one of countless similar narratives as confirmed by The UN Mapping Report, which catalogs the most serious human rights incidents occurring in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. It highlights the ramifications of this conflict including the inability to protect borders, prosecute crimes, and maintain strong branches of government.
For these reasons, hundreds of organizations and over fifty members of Congress have called on the Biden administration to designate TPS for the DRC. The U.S. has previously acknowledged the severity of the situation in the DRC. In October 2022, the Department of State issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory warning U.S. citizens not to travel to the DRC. The advisory underscored the ongoing conflict, violence against civilians, and humanitarian crisis. It is time for the Biden administration to heed the call to protect the Congolese. There is no better time than the immediate aftermath of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Samantha Barzaga is a second-year law student at Florida State University College of Law, and a member of the International Human Rights Advocacy Clinic.