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DRC's homemade refugee crisis

Martina Schwikowski
May 31, 2017

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has more internally displaced persons than any other country. That’s due to numerous violent conflicts – fuelled by a political crisis. Experts say fresh EU sanctions could help.

Refugee children from DRC in Angola.
Image: UNICEF/N. Wieland

The Democratic Republic of Congo has more than its fair share of crises: conflict in the Kasai province along the border with Angola, attacks by rebels in the jungle of the eastern province of North Kivu, and even in the capital, Kinshasa, protests against President Joseph Kabila's government have repeatedly given way to violent riots, leaving dozens of people dead.

The result: a huge refugee crisis. Almost a million people were forced to flee their homes in 2016 alone – globally, the largest number of refugees fleeing armed conflict. According to the latest figures from the "Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre" (IDMC), which are based on UN data, the 922,000 new internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the DRC place the country ahead of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The IDMC says action is urgently needed.

Children fleeing conflict

Ongoing violence in central DRC has left around 400,000 children at risk of life-threatening malnourishment. In the Kasai region, heath centers have been forced to closed due to looting, a lack of security for staff and a shortage of medical supplies, the UN's children's agency UNICEF has reported. Conflict in the area has already driven 9,000 children to flee across the border to the Angolan city of Dundo.

Three refugee children from DRC in an Angolan camp.
The UN says thousands of children have fled to Angola from the DRC to avoid recruitment by militiaImage: UNICEF/N. Wieland

The journey means a long and potentially dangerous walk through the bush, says Abubacar Sultan, who works for UNICEF in Angola. "Some of these children actually seem to have been direct victims of attacks," he says. "They come wounded, some of them with their limbs mutilated or parts of their bodies burned, some with bullets still in their bodies."

Two camps provide refuge for the children, but some arrive alone, having been separated from their parents either in their villages, during the journey or even at the moment of transportation to the camps, Sultan explains, adding that UNICEF tries to track down their relatives.

New EU sanctions

Critics say the government is doing little to address the conflicts. President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down at the end of his mandate last year led to increased tensions and waves of protests across the country. Under an agreement brokered on New Year's Eve, Kabila is now set to remain in office until elections in late 2017. But talks to implement the agreement broke down in March, rendering progress slow and leaving plans for the elections in disarray.

DRC President Joseph Kabila
DRC President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step aside led to nationwide protestsImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. D. Kannah

The EU had already imposed sanctions on some members of the security forces last December. Now it has added nine leading political figures to the list, the EU said in a statement on Monday.  Among those targeted by the new sanctions are Interior Minister Ramazani Shadari and government spokesman Lambert Mende – officials in the highest ranks of President Joseph Kabila's government. They'll now face asset freezes and a ban on travelling to Europe.

Government under pressure

Donatella Rostagno is Director of the European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), which gathers member organizations from civil society in several European countries. Pressure from international and Congolese NGOs helped prompt the sanctions, which she sees as effective, as they target people who travel regularly to Europe. Some of them have homes in Belgium or France, where their children are studying. "Not being able to access your bank account or travel to Belgium if you live there and have a house there – this will really affect people and it shows [the EU is taking] a strong stance," she told DW.

The DRC government has yet to make an official statement on the new sanctions, but the move has obviously sparked anxiety. A government source in Kinshasa, who wished to remain anonymous, told the news agency AFP that the situation "is very worrisome" and accused the EU of trying to "destabilize the DRC, like Libya or Iraq". But EurAc Director Rostagno emphasizes that the EU has promised to continue its financial support for the elections – but with the clear condition that the government sticks to the New Year's Eve agreement, sorts out the budget and announces clear dates for the vote. 

Rules unclear for election preparations

Initial preparations for the elections are under way. According to the electoral commission, more than half of the country's around 45 million voters have already been registered. As the next phase of voter registration begins, citizens in Kinshasa can now enter their names on the list. But there's disagreement over the number of voters in the capital. The electoral commission says there are five million potential voters in the city. But according to the opposition, seven to eight million people in Kinshasa are eligible to vote.

Kinshasa 2011: electoral agents remove counted ballot papers from the boxes as initial results are shown on a blackboard behind them.
During the 2011 elections, many people in Kinshasa complained they were unable to vote after finding their names were missing from voter lists Image: picture alliance/dpa

"Nobody knows the exact figures and whether the registration process is fair," Rostagno says. The electoral commission has not made its method transparent, she explains, which makes it difficult to perform checks and encourages rumors. Many were concerned when President Kabila was the first to register in the capital, although he had been said to have already registered back in September, when the registration process started.

EurAc Director Rostagno sees one major reason for the government's progress in preparing the election: "President Kabila needs a list of voters to be able to hold a referendum," she told DW. That way, he could change the constitution and stay in power after the elections. But that would go against many of the conditions in place – the New Year's Eve agreement explicitly rules out a referendum before the election. For Rostagno, the government's failure to act when it comes to the country's conflicts means chances are slim that the election will take place this year: "A free and fair vote cannot take place in a country riddled with crises."


Taina de Oliveira contributed to this report.

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