Congolese (DRC) refugees

Source: ICMC Europe, Welcome to Europe! A comprehensive guide to resettlement, 2013

As of 1 January 2014, over half a million refugees fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making the DRC refugee population the sixth largest in the world. Over 75% of the DRC refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes Region and Southern Africa - the Republic of the Congo (31,936), Uganda (154,262), Tanzania (64,659), Rwanda (73,041), Burundi (45,124), Zambia (14,784) and Malawi (2,558).

The Congolese refugee population mainly consists of those who fled the first and second Congo Wars in 1996- 1997 and 1998-2003, respectively. More recently, outbreaks of violence in the east of the DRC have led to approximately 45,000 refugees fleeing to Uganda and Rwanda. Contributing factors to the persistent violence and instability in the DRC include the absence of functioning state authorities, the fragility of state institutions, tensions over land ownership and citizenship, and externalisation of instability in neighbouring countries.

The volatile security situation in many areas of the DRC means voluntary repatriation is not currently a viable solution for most DRC refugees. Opportunities for local integration in the host countries are also very limited. While all countries hosting DRC refugees are signatories to the 1951 Convention, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, several have imposed restrictions limiting the ability of DRC refugees to enjoy their rights, including:

  • the legal right to work (Malawi,Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia);
  • access to education (Zambia);
  • freedom of movement (Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia); and
  • access to citizenship (Burundi, Malawi).

Restrictions have been applied either legally, as a consequence of host countries having made reservations to the Conventions, or practically but without legal basis. Even in cases where DRC refugees enjoy basic rights, their integration prospects are often limited. In Burundi and Uganda, for example, DRC refugees have the legal right to work but rates of employment are extremely low, limiting their access to livelihoods. Many therefore choose to remain in camps, increasing their dependence on aid. Due to the size and the protracted nature of the Congolese refugee situation and the ongoing violence in eastern DRC, a common sub-regional approach to enhance durable solutions for Congolese refugees was introduced in early 2012. This strategy includes significantly increased resettlement of Congolese refugees living in a protracted situation in the Great Lakes and South Africa region. Some 160,000 refugees have been identified for resettlement. Of these, at least 50,000 Congolese refugees will be submitted for resettlement from 2012 to 2017, making the Congolese one of the largest resettlement operations for the coming period. For 2014, UNHCR’s Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2014 (hereafter referred to as ‘PGRN 2014’) envisages resettlement from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi, totalling 13,390 refugees.

Most of the Congolese refugees have lived in protracted situations in camps, settlements (Uganda) and urban situations, many for over 17 years. The majority of refugees are of Banyarwanda backgrounds (Tutsi, Hutu or Banyamulenge) and most are children under the age of 18. The average household size is estimated to be 5.5 individuals; and considerable numbers of Congolese refugees have not received any formal education and have worked in agriculture. The population consists of large numbers of single parents/single mothers and a large proportion of Women At Risk (WAR), persons with medical needs, including various trauma and SGBV survivors and unaccompanied or separated children.

The large majority of the Congolese refugees are resettled to the United States. In Europe, Sweden and Denmark plan to resettle DRC refugees from Uganda within their 2013 annual quotas, Belgium has pledged to resettle Congolese from Burundi, Finland will resettle 150 Congolese refugees from Southern Africa (Malawi and Zambia), and the Netherlands will resettle Congolese refugees from Rwanda and Uganda. The profiles show that the refugees will require considerable attention when they will arrive in their new countries, and that reception and integration programmes will need to address vulnerabilities.

Photo 1: Congolese refugees in Rwanda. ©UNHCR/F.Noy 2012

Photo 2: Congolese refugees in Rwanda strengthening their tents. ©UNHCR/F.Noy 2012