DR Congo: Strengthen Protection for Displaced People

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Tel: +1-212-216-1832
Email: hrwpress@hrw.org

DR Congo: Strengthen Protection for Displaced People

Internally Displaced Should Not Be Forced to Return Home

AMSTERDAM - Both the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the
United Nations peacekeeping mission there should give greater emphasis
to the protection of the nearly two million people displaced from their
homes in the conflict-ridden eastern part of the country, Human Rights
Watch said in a report released today. The UN Refugee Agency and
international donors should ensure that assistance programs are not used
to press them to go home before they are confident it is safe, Human
Rights Watch said. 

The 88-page report, "Always on the Run: The Vicious Cycle of Displacement in Eastern Congo,"
documents abuses against the displaced by all warring parties in all
phases of displacement - during the attacks that uproot them; after they
have been displaced and are living in the forests, with host families,
or in camps; and after they or the authorities decide it is time for
them to return home. The report is based on interviews with 146 people
displaced from their homes in eastern Congo, as well as government
officials, humanitarian workers, and journalists.

"Despite the government's stabilization and reconstruction efforts in
eastern Congo, the population remains at risk from continuing
violence," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights
Watch and author of the report. "The internally displaced are among the
most vulnerable people in the region, and they desperately need greater
protection and assistance."

The report documents how myriad armed groups and the Congolese armed
forces have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in North and South
Kivu - eastern Congo's most volatile provinces - often multiple times
and for many years.  Combatants have forced civilians from their homes
and lands, looted their properties, and punished them for suspected
collaboration with enemy groups. These internally displaced persons
(IDPs) have fled killings, rape, burning, pillaging, and forced labor.

According to UN estimates, the conflict has left at least 1.8 million
civilians displaced -the fourth-largest internal displacement in the
world - 1.4 million of them in North and South Kivu, bordering Rwanda.
The situation remains fluid.  While the UN estimates that 1 million
internally displaced returned to their homes in 2009, at least 1.2
million people were forced to flee their homes during three successive
military operations that began in January 2009. During the first three
months of 2010, at least 115,000 people fled their homes due to
continued military operations and danger in the Kivus.

The Vicious Cycle of Displacement

Abandoning possessions, homes, land, and livelihoods, large numbers
of civilians first seek refuge in the forest near their villages in the
hope of staying close to their fields and property. Many face further
abuses there, including attacks by armed groups, rape, and robbery or
are forced by the lack of shelter and hunger to seek refuge and help
elsewhere.

At least 80 percent of eastern Congo's displaced find relative safety
living with "host families," who themselves struggle to make ends
meet.  These displaced people face economic hardship, hunger, and
disease, and the vast majority have little or no access to health care
and education. With time, the host families become overburdened by the
displaced, who are often then forced to move again.

Although many say they prefer to survive by cultivating land, their
limited or non-existent access to fields means that many rely on
humanitarian agencies. But for logistical or security reasons, these
agencies are often unable to reach them in the places where they have
taken refuge.  

"Again and again, parents desperate to feed their children said that
the absence of aid meant that they had no choice but to risk life and
limb and return to places of grave danger," Simpson said. "They need aid
both to fend off hunger and to avoid losing their lives at the hands of
armed groups."   

The Question of Return

Although military operations have continued throughout this year,
Congolese government officials have repeatedly said that the security
situation in eastern Congo has vastly improved and that it wants to see
the displaced return home.

The report describes the obstacles displaced people face in returning
to their homes: the general lack of security in villages away from main
roads; abuses and threats by combatants on all sides of the conflict;
accusations of collaborating with enemy groups; looting of harvests;
extortion by ill-disciplined combatants; and disputes over land title,
land occupation, and property destruction.

The report also documents how, at times, the authorities have let
political considerations take priority over the needs of the displaced
and have encouraged them to leave camps against their will. For example,
in September 2009, Congolese authorities pressured 60,000 people in
UN-run camps in and around Goma to return home.

Police and bandits raided and looted the camps as they were closing,
attacking those who were slow to pack up and leave. A number of the
displaced told Human Rights Watch they didn't even try to go home
because they knew it was still unsafe, while others tried but were
forced to disperse by armed groups. Neither the government nor UN
agencies adequately monitored what happened to those 60,000 people.

"UN agencies and donors need to provide sufficient resources for
emergency humanitarian assistance," Simpson said. "The displaced should
be encouraged to return home only if it is safe and under voluntary and
dignified conditions."  

The Need for Protection

Congolese authorities have a poor track record in protecting
displaced people and other civilians, with Congolese army units often
abusing the population they are supposed to protect, Human Rights Watch
said. Congolese authorities rely on almost 20,000 UN peacekeepers (the
UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, MONUSCO) to help protect civilians under imminent threat of
physical violence and assist displaced civilians who want to return
home.

Human Rights Watch said that the UN mission has developed some
innovative ways to enhance civilian protection, including a civilian
protection strategy and Joint Protection Teams, who try to anticipate
and respond to civilians' protection needs. These initiatives have had
some positive impact, but the peacekeepers are spread across a vast and
difficult terrain with overstretched resources, and their ability to
protect civilians has also been limited. As a result, the challenge of
protecting eastern Congo's civilians remains immense.

 Protecting civilians, including people who are internally displaced,
should remain the key consideration as the government develops
post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction policies, Human Rights
Watch said.

"The rebuilding of eastern Congo should not come at the expense of
protection for its most vulnerable citizens," Simpson said. "The UN and
donors should ensure that their rights to life and dignity remain
central to any reconstruction efforts."

###

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

Share This Article

More in: