Burundians find little refuge in DRC

The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a place of intense contradictions. Driving south from Uvira toward Fizi in the province of South Kivu, the sun sparkles off of the ‘great’ Lake Tangyanika which expands to the east. To the west, the Itombwe mountain range towers above the road in multiple shades of green. It’s clear why many visitors to Eastern Congo refer to it as the Switzerland of Africa.

Unfortunately, the beauty of Congo exists in sharp contrast to the serious insecurity, governance challenges, and humanitarian crises ongoing in several regions of the country. In South Kivu alone, there are dozens of armed groups operating throughout the countryside, many pillaging villages and sometimes clashing with the Congolese army. In 2015, 176,000 people were displaced internally in South Kivu (with new displacement happening every month) and currently, half a million of the province’s residents are food insecure.  Additionally, a potential political crisis could destabilize the region further as President Joseph Kabila considers seeking a third term in violation of the constitution.

It is into this context that over 20,000 Burundian refugees have arrived, fleeing a political crisis in their own country. Following a failed coup d’etat against President Pierre Nkurunziza in May 2015 and his subsequent controversial decision to run for a third term, violence erupted between pro-government and pro-opposition elements. At present, the ruling party and its youth militia wing target and persecute citizens who do not actively support the government. Over the past year, 255,000 Burundians have fled their country, with an untold number displaced internally.

My colleague Michael Boyce and I spent the past week meeting with Burundian refugees in South Kivu. There are around 16,000 Burundians living at the Lusenda refugee site, as well as another 5,000 or more residing with host communities in villages to the north and south of Uvira. Though the numbers might appear small for a refugee crisis, the context is complex and volatile and requires a robust and well-resourced response.

At the Lusenda site, refugees have protested the quantity and quality of services provided, such as a meagre $15 a month per person to purchase food provisions. Congolese police, who are not well-trained or well-paid themselves, have responded to these protests by firing live bullets. Nearly every refugee whom we interviewed in Lusenda told us that they were concerned about the behavior of the police and the potential for an escalation of tension.

Inside the two main transit centers where new refugee arrivals are processed and registered before taking up residence at Lusenda, we spoke with numerous refugees who told us that they had spent weeks at the centers with no clear indication about when they might be able to move to the camp. As the sites are meant for only short-term stays there are limited services available, and a prolonged or indefinite stay will only add to the refugees’ anguish.

As noted above, several thousand refugees have decided to live outside of Lusenda camp with host communities. We met with a number of refugee families that had been welcomed into local villages. Unfortunately, though, they were having trouble paying for school and medical fees. One woman, Elizabeth, who fled from Burundi with her nine children, told us that she could only afford to send two of her kids to school. Another women, Abimana, who crossed into DRC with seven grandchildren in her care, can only afford to send one of her kids to school. Yet another woman we met said that she’d been feeling ill for days but could not afford to go to the local health center. When we asked refugees why they didn’t prefer to live in the camp, one refugee mother told us that a camp was no place to raise children, and she was worried that they might face harm there. We also heard from a refugee who said she was waiting for other family members to cross from Burundi and that she didn’t want to go into the camp until they arrived and were united.

Tragically, the challenges of paying school fees and accessing quality medical care are common ones for many Congolese people – not just for the refugees they host. Over the past two decades, persistent conflict has degraded the country’s health and education infrastructure, particularly in the east, and stagnated efforts to rebuild. According the UN’s latest assessment, 16% of South Kivu’s population requires humanitarian aid to survive.   But donor fatigue is clearly setting in. The DRC’s overall Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 is thus far only 4% funded, and the UN Refugee Agency’s specific appeal for the Burundian refugee response has barely received anything.

With all that the region has suffered through, with the potential for political instability in the future, and with no end in sight to the Burundian crisis, this is no time for donors to forsake Eastern Congo.