UNHCR shelter programme in South Kivu needs fresh funding

News Stories, 18 March 2009

© UNHCR/F.Fontanini
New brick houses dot Sebele village, where Amina lives.

BARAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, March 18 (UNHCR) Pressure to provide new housing in South Kivu is mounting as more and more people return to the relatively peaceful and stable province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But the ability of agency's such as UNHCR to keep pace with demand will depend on the continuing generosity of donors.

"The absence of adequate housing is one of the biggest challenges refugees face upon their return to South Kivu. After years of absence, most find their homes destroyed and have nowhere to stay," Sebastien Apatita, head of the UN refugee agency's office in Baraka, explained during a recent visit.

Most of the refugees returning to South Kivu come from camps across Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Last year, the agency funded the construction of some 500 shelters in the province's Uvira and Fizi districts to accommodate some 2,500 of the more than 14,500 returnees it helped back home, mostly via this lakeside port.

Over the next two years, with thousands more refugees expected back, UNHCR hopes to provide the resources to build 1,500 more houses in Uvira and Fizi for the most vulnerable families. But this ambitious target will depend on receiving sufficient funding during a time of economic recession.

"It's a very critical situation," said UNHCR Regional Representative Mohamed Boukry. "Unless we receive contributions, we will have no choice but to reduce this important assistance to thousands of Congolese refugees coming back home from Tanzania," he added.

UNHCR does not construct the new brick houses and shelters in South Kivu, but provides the materials and tools. This includes corrugated iron sheets for roofing, pre-made doors and windows, nails, axes, hammers and the like. The families then build their own houses.

Those who might find it difficult or impossible to build their own homes, including single women, the elderly and the ill, get help from the community. Amina,* a single mother of four, did not know what to make of the shelter kit she received from UNHCR after being ferried across the lake to Baraka.

"I did not how to use it, but then thanks to help of my brothers and sisters we succeed in building a house," she proudly told visitors in the village of Sebele, located a few kilometres from Baraka. UNHCR and its partners follow up to make sure that the shelter kits have been used properly.

"It is a miracle to come home with almost nothing and almost immediately to have a house after spending more than 10 years in a tent in a refugee camp," Amina enthused.

The beneficiaries of the programme are identified by members of the community with advice from UNHCR and the government's National Commission for Refugees.

Years of devastating civil war in the DRC formally ended in 2003, with a peace treaty. While human rights abuses continue to be recorded in South Kivu, the province has largely remained peaceful in recent years, unlike neighbouring North Kivu province, where conflict continues to displace people.

The relative improvements in security in South Kivu, Equateur and Katanga provinces has led to the return of more than 180,000 Congolese refugees, mainly from Tanzania, the Republic of Congo and Zambia, since UNHCR repatriation operations started in 2005. This year, UNHCR plans to help home about 35,000 Congolese from Tanzania and Zambia.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Francesca Fontanini in Baraka, Democratic Republic of the Congo