Sudanese refugees flee camps in DR Congo amid ethnic clashes
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expressed grave concern over the fate of close to 20,000 Sudanese refugees who fled into the bushes after rebels invaded their camps in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
On Monday, rebels of the Congolese Patriotic Union/Popular Rally (UPC-RP) overran Biringi refugee settlement, 80 km west of the eastern DRC town of Aru, Ituri province, as they withdrew from ethnic clashes in the area. Their presence in the settlement caused panic and drove more than 17,000 refugees in Biringi, along with locals from surrounding areas, into the bushes.
On Thursday, further fighting between the UPC-RP (believed to supporters of the Hema ethnic group) and ethnic Lendu militias shifted the conflict to the refugee settlement of Ayamba. Some 2,500 Sudanese refugees, together with the families of UNHCR's implementing partners, fled from the fighting as the Lendu militias looted the settlement.
Due to insecurity in the area, UNHCR staff in Aru have been unable to get to Biringi or Ayamba to assess the situation. The majority of the refugees there are said to be still in hiding.
"We are gravely concerned about the presence of combatants on a refugee site," said Alphonse Malanda, Acting Regional Representative for UNHCR based in Kinshasa. "Should the situation deteriorate further, we fear that we may not be able to effectively protect the refugees."
He added, "The overall security situation makes it nearly impossible for us to have regular access to refugees who may be more exposed to violence. Some are in the bushes while others may soon share the same fate as the fighting intensifies between different rebel groups."
Other refugees in northern Ituri province risk getting caught in ethnic and rebel fighting as the area is currently controlled by three different rebel factions.
Sudanese refugees have been in the DRC for the past 12 years. While a few arrived between 1998 and 2000 and still depend on humanitarian assistance, the majority of them are long-time refugees who have integrated into villages and reached a level of self-sufficiency. The DRC hosts a total of 75,600 Sudanese refugees, 41,000 of whom are assisted by UNHCR.