UNHCR chief concerned about "disastrous" displacement in eastern Congo

News Stories, 16 May 2012

© UNHCR/S.Modola
Congolese refugees gather earlier this week for a meeting in Nkamira transit centre, Rwanda, with UNHCR staff.

GENEVA, May 16 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday expressed alarm at new inflows of refugees this year into Rwanda and Uganda from fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

"The displacement level we see in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is already disastrous," said Guterres in a statement released in Geneva. "Conflict there, coupled with very limited access for humanitarian workers, means that many thousands of people are without protection and help. And now people in need are appearing in neighbouring countries too."

Violence has afflicted the South and North Kivu areas of Democratic Republic of Congo over several years. But the situation has worsened in recent months amid recent fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda, causing significant internal displacement and pushing thousands into Uganda and Rwanda.

UNHCR staff in Rwanda report that as of Tuesday more than 8,200 refugees had crossed from DRC's North Kivu province since April 27 and made their way to the Nkamira transit centre, some 20 kilometres inside Rwanda from the Goma-Gisenyi crossing. These are in addition to the 55,000 Congolese refugees that Rwanda is already hosting.

Although the violence across the border appears to have ebbed in recent days, an average of 100 people a day are arriving at the crowded transit centre, compared to about 1,000 daily in late April.

"We continue to brace ourselves for more arrivals," Anouck Bronée, a UNHCR associate external relations officer, said on Wednesday from Nkamira. "We're going to consolidate what we do here," she added. Two of the main concerns were providing shelter and health care at a time when it rains a lot.

Meanwhile, an expert team is due on Thursday to visit a site in Nyamababe district near the border with Burundi that could become a new refugee camp on land provided by the Rwandan government. UNHCR will take part.

In Uganda, government officials say that 30,000 refugees crossed the border to escape several days of fighting that erupted between the Congolese army and Ntaganda's supporters in Rutshuru territory on May 10.

UNHCR is unable to independently confirm the number, which includes Rwandans, but UNHCR's Sakura Atsumi, visiting the border town of Bunagana on Wednesday, said: "These are entire villages and families" living in areas close to the border. Most wish to stay in the border area, going back and forth as the situation allows, but sleeping in Uganda.

The refugee agency does not register arrivals or distribute aid at the border, but it provides this at the Nyakabande transit centre, some 20 kms away in Kisoro district. There are currently some 2,800 refugees at the centre, including 500 who were brought there from the border by UNHCR on Tuesday and 600 who made their own way there the same day. The camp has a capacity for 1,000 people.

UNHCR's Atsumi said a weekly convoy, carrying 500 people, was due to leave Nyakabande on Thursday for the Rwamwanja settlement, in Kamwenge district to the north of Kisoro, which was opened by the government on April 17 after the last influx. So far almost 3,700 refugees have been transferred to the settlement from Nyakabande.

Prior to this new inflow, Uganda was already host to more than 175,000 refugees, including almost 100,000 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 22,800 from Somalia, 18,800 from Sudan and slightly more than 16,000 from Rwanda.

Since November 2011, when presidential and parliamentary elections were held in the DRC, an estimated 300,000 people have been newly displaced in North and South Kivu provinces. This is on top of the more than 1.1 million people in the area who had fled their homes during earlier violence. Countrywide, and including these numbers, more than 2 million people are now uprooted, according to UN figures.