Week Two: DR Congo

In partnership with the Egna Legna Besidet


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Ariane Kitoko, Egna Legna Besidet


Overview of the Conflict

The DRC has been deeply entrenched in conflict for decades now. Many parts of the country remain engulfed in violence and armed conflict, human rights violations, and breaches of international humanitarian law. Inter-communal conflicts between various minority and armed groups affiliated with these communities, coupled with military offensives by the Congolese national army, continue to cause repeated displacement of millions of people, especially in the Eastern Kantaga (Shaba) plateau.

The country’s first war began in late 1996 and concluded with the toppling of President Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997. In this war, Angola, Rwanda and Uganda formed a coalition against the DRC forces. After a brief halt in fighting, the new president, Laurent Kabila, fell out with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies who had been instrumental in putting him in power. This falling out led to the country’s second war, which ultimately began in mid-1998. This second war included the participation of many actors in complex alignments. Some joined the war in support of Kabila, whereas others joined to seek to oust him. On one side there was Angola, Chad, the DRC, Namibia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Maï-Maï and Hutu-aligned forces. On the other side there were Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and Tutsi-aligned forces. Four incremental peace agreements led to the conclusion of the country’s second war. These included: (1) the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement (1999), (2) the Sun City Agreement (April 2002), (3) the Pretoria Agreement (July 2002) and the (4) Luanda Agreement (September 2002).

Even though these agreements did not end violence in many parts of the country, they served as pivotal pillars for the Global and Inclusive Agreement which ended the country’s second war, and led to the formation of a unified Transitional Government of the DRC in 2003. This agreement has, however, not succeeded in alleviating violence in the DRC, especially in the country’s eastern regions, in what can be considered as the third episode of the conflict.

In 2016, armed conflict erupted in the Kasai region, and since 2017 the Djugu territory of Ituri province in the country’s northeastern regions has been convulsed by conflict. In late 2021, rising community tensions resulted in four attacks of unprecedented violence in the regions of Tché, Drodro, Paroisse, Luko, and Ivo.

According to the UNHCR, protection needs and root causes remain unresolved, essentially limiting the overall prospects for solutions in the areas most affected. Large influxes of population movements continue to overwhelm host communities, often already living in dire conditions. While host families have welcomed IDP families in their communities, hosts remain just as vulnerable, with limited access to services and livelihoods.

Displacement in Numbers

The DRC remains one of the most complex and long-standing humanitarian crises in the African continent, with more than 5.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 526,000 refugees and asylum-seekers (mainly from Burundi, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan), as of December 2021. It is estimated that since 2016 there has been an average of one million new IDPs per year, in a cycle of returns and new displacements. Simultaneously, there are more than 918,000 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers hosted in African countries, with the majority living in the seven neighboring countries that are part of the DRC Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRRP). These countries are: Angola, Burundi, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Zambia, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Most Congolese refugees have fled from the eastern areas of North and South Kivu and Ituri provinces, while others have fled areas in Kasai, Haut Katanga and Tanganyika provinces.

Although Congolese refugees reside in many different countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the four primary host countries providing asylum to Congolese refugees are Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees have also fled to Angola and Zambia according to UNHCR as well. A notable increase in human rights abuses was recorded for 2021 through UNHCR protection monitoring in the four eastern provinces of the DRC: 8,233 incidents in Tanganyika province, 15,055 in North Kivu province, 17,129 in South Kivu province and 27,443 in Ituri Province. According to the US State Department, these human rights abuses include physical attacks against civilians, killings, kidnappings for ransom, forced and child recruitment, sexual exploitation and abuse, looting, and sexual/gender-based violence (SGBV), including rape. With significant socio-economic hardships further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been an increase in the sale and exchange of sex as a survival mechanism.

Realities in Host Countries

Close to one million refugees and asylum-seekers are hosted across the Southern and Great Lakes regions of Africa. The 2022 DRC RRRP details the inter-agency response for Congolese refugees in seven of these countries: Angola, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia. Between them, these countries have demonstrated commitment to maintaining open borders for asylum-seekers and ensuring international protection for Congolese refugees for decades now.

Throughout these host countries, the COVID-19 lockdowns and movement restrictions between 2020 and 2021 halted the economic activity and resulted in the loss of income and increased vulnerability for Congolese refugees and their families. This has notably worsened the situation for Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers in Burundi and Tanzania, where they already faced restrictions to their rights prior to the COVID-19. Restrictions included limitations to their freedom of movement, their right to work, their land and property rights, as well as their access to education, services and justice at a broader level. In Tanzania, Congolese refugees continue to endure a strict encampment policy, as well as restrictions on livelihood and self-reliance initiatives. This has contributed to an increased dependency on international humanitarian assistance where resources are available.

The majority of Congolese refugees rely on humanitarian assistance to varying extents. While RRRP partners promote self-reliance and resilience with the intent of reducing dependence on humanitarian assistance, the process has been slow and requires much more financial commitment and investment. Simultaneously, the presence of refugee camps and settlements has placed immense pressures on resources in host communities – both in terms of basic services and environmental resources, with more and more strategies being adopted to promote the peaceful coexistence between refugee and host communities where Congolese refugees reside.

According to UNHCR, in 2022, it is expected that in addition to protection services and strengthening work with affected communities, that there will be a need for RRRP partners to continue to deliver basic services and assistance programs to support: (1) health and nutrition services; (2) water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) systems; (3) household shelter infrastructure; and (4) access to education. Food and cash assistance will continue to be needed. While prospects for voluntary repatriation have been witnessed for Congolese refugees from the Kasai region residing in Angola, and for those from Haut-Katanga and Tanganyika provinces residing in Zambia, UNHCR warns that opportunities for durable solutions through repatriation and resettlement will still be limited in 2022.

Some of the widest protection gaps regarding Congolese nationals occur on the periphery, in countries where DRC citizens are subject to policies that disregard the context of their migration. For Congolese migrants throughout the Middle East, restrictive labor policies, often compared to modern-day slavery restrict their access to basic rights, work benefits, and freedoms. Governed under the Kafala system, the community along with hundreds of thousands who come from African and Asian countries and to work in private households, continue to endure conditions often compared to modern-day slavery. The vast majority of these migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are women. MDWs in many countries across the Middle East region are trapped in an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labor exploitation, forced labor and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress or seeking justice. In Lebanon, it is close to impossible for MDWs to navigate the Kafala system while continuing to pursue a dignified life without being put at risk of deportation. In the context of the DRC conflict, no humanitarian considerations are taken by governmental or humanitarian agencies in cases where Congolese nationals are forcibly deported. As per testimonials obtained by Egna Legna, DRC’s consular mission in Lebanon is effectively inoperative and slow to take action on such urgent matters. This means that Congolese migrants are often left to fend for themselves, at the risk of falling into further precarity as a result of push factors in their home country and in their countries of destination, all with little to no means for protection or support. Such is the case with most nationals from conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

An approach rooted in “willful blindness” embodies the world order’s ineffective action toward the DRC conflict. The DRC’s tragic fate is the natural outcome of decades of institutional mismanagement, political endemic exogenous and endogenous instabilities. While there has been significant international attention and continental commitment through the African Union and sub-regional commitment through the ICGLR to stem the violence in the DRC, violence continues to be present. The UN has deployed one of its largest peacekeeping missions to the DRC, and revised its mandate over the years to increase the capacity of this force to protect civilians. UNHCR continues to provide assistance to people displaced inside the DRC through activities aimed at strengthening the protection of vulnerable people, including women and children. It also provides shelter materials and cash grants to the most vulnerable among the displaced and returnees. UNHCR continues to coordinate with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to lead the coordination and management of sites hosting IDPs in North Kivu and Tanganyika provinces.

UNHCR additionally provides protection and assistance to Congolese refugees in neighboring countries, in collaboration with authorities and partners, including those forced to flee during the most recent surge of violence. Refugees, mainly women and children, from countries like the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Burundi, who have sought refuge in the DRC, also receive life-saving support and international protection through UNHCR and its partners, notably the National Refugee Commission, UNHCR’s Government partner. Despite the enormous needs, UNHCR has only received 67% of the USD 156 million needed in 2019 to adequately secure life-saving assistance and protection to refugees, IDPs and other vulnerable people in the DRC. For their part, civil society organizations continue to work at grassroots level to transform the roots and culture of violence, but cycles of violence remain alarmingly high.