As Burundi Sneezes, Will the Congo Catch Cold?

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest and most populous countries in Africa; so almost inevitably, any problem in the DRC is a big problem. In previous years, Refugees International has traveled to the DRC to report on internal displacement and gender-based violence – tragedies that afflict millions of Congolese civilians. But during our visit to the country this month, my colleague Mark Yarnell and I will focus on a problem that seems – at first glance – far more limited: the arrival of just over 20,000 refugees from neighboring Burundi. At a time of desperate humanitarian need and severe political turmoil elsewhere in the DRC, why focus on such a “small” problem? The answer is that it only takes one match to start a five-alarm fire.

At a time of desperate humanitarian need and severe political turmoil elsewhere in the DRC, why focus on such a “small” problem? The answer is that it only takes one match to start a five-alarm fire.

For decades, refugees – including Burundians – have moved back and forth across the Great Lakes region. These refugees were trying to escape conflict in their home countries, but all too often, these conflicts followed them into exile. Many of the region’s most infamous armed groups – from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, to Burundi’s National Liberation Forces, to the DRC’s March 23 Movement – have operated in, or recruited from, refugee camps. The presence of these militias has affected not only the lives of individual refugees, but also the security of the wider region. In the mid-1990s, for example, Rwandan refugee camps in eastern DRC were effectively taken over by the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This prompted attacks by opposing armed groups which killed thousands of civilians and helped usher in the calamitous First Congo War.

This dangerous pattern continues today amidst renewed civil conflict in Burundi. RI reported in December 2015 that non-state armed groups were recruiting Burundian refugees in Rwanda, and that some of these recruits traveled through eastern DRC on their way home to fight. More recently, similar problems have been reported by Burundian refugees in Tanzania. This has sparked concerns that Burundi’s simmering conflict might draw in neighboring nations, with dire results for both refugees and their hosts. These concerns are especially acute in the eastern DRC, where myriad armed groups – both foreign and domestic – already operate and intercommunal tensions run high.

During our visit to the DRC, we plan to meet with Burundian refugees and the Congolese communities who host them. We aim to learn about the assistance they receive and the security threats they face. Armed with this information, we will push the United Nations, donor governments, and aid agencies to address current needs and prevent future violence. I hope you’ll follow @RefugeesIntl to receive our latest updates and connect with us in the field. 

Top photo: Burundian refugees in Rwanda.