“Look at my children: they have nothing:” Hard Times for Burundian Refugees in DRC

In March 2015, the first Burundian refugees began arriving in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), fleeing persecution and fearing an all-out war at home. Since then, just over 20,000 have come – a relatively small number, compared with today’s other refugee crises. But donors and the United Nations have struggled to meet the needs, leaving many refugees feeling frustrated and abandoned. 


More than 16,000 Burundians now live in Lusenda refugee camp, in South Kivu province. The camp is the only place in the region where refugees can receive what the UN calls “comprehensive assistance.”
But in Lusenda, “comprehensive” does not mean sufficient. Refugees receive less than $0.50 a day to spend on food, and patients at the nearby clinic say they receive little more than painkillers.
The camp sits just above Lake Tanganyika, with Burundi only a few hours away by boat. Some refugees wish the camp would be moved, “because it’s too close to the lake and we worry someone could come across and threaten us.” But in this densely populated region, where land conflicts are common, there are few good alternatives.
The security threats refugees face are not just external. Many Lusenda residents say they are most afraid of the Congolese police located in and around the camp. Police have fired live bullets in response to refugees’ protests against poor living conditions. Some refugees also told RI they could move outside the camp without being arrested or abused by police officers.
Life outside the camp can be even harder. Mariam and her nine year old son struggle daily to have enough to eat. When RI staff met with her, she said that she had been feeling sick for days but could not afford access to medical care at the local clinic.
Marie, left, and her eight children rowed across Lake Tanganyika to reach DRC. Because they live outside the camp and do not receive aid, they must work for Congolese landowners to survive. “Look at my children: they have nothing,” Marie told RI. “If I earn money, I can either spend it on food or their education. I don’t know what the future holds for my family – only God knows.”
As of April 4, 2016, donor governments had provided an abysmal 2 percent of the funds needed to assist Burundian refugees in the DRC. More money is urgently needed – both to meet refugees’ basic needs, and to ensure they are protected from abuse.