To stay or not to stay: a young Congolese refugee opts for a life in Gabon

News Stories, 4 August 2011

© UNHCR/C.Schmitt
Anita proudly displays the residence card that will allow her to remain in Gabon after her refugee status ends.

LIBREVILLE, Gabon, Aug 3 (UNHCR) Anita is old enough to remember her homeland, the Republic of Congo, but at a pivotal time in her life she has decided to settle in Gabon after spending half her 26 years here.

It's a choice that thousands of other Congolese in Gabon will have to make after formally losing their refugee status at the end of last month. UNHCR and the government here expect that most of the 9,300 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers will opt to stay in Gabon.

Some 1,300 have so far applied for residence permits, giving them the right to stay and to work, but not yet to apply for citizenship. About 400 have applied to return home and UNHCR has a programme to encourage more to repatriate.

Anita received hers on July 26. She lives in the capital, Libr ville, with her Ghanaian partner and has decided that her future is here in Gabon, rather than the alien land to the south that she, her mother and two siblings fled from in 1998 during a short but devastating civil war.

"My life is here," she said firmly after completing the final procedures for her residence permit at the headquarters of the General Directorate of Documentation and Immigration (DGDI). She beamed with happiness as she left the building clutching her permit, which makes her future easier.

The immigration office is issuing about 40 residence permits every day. The recipients will now be treated as migrants rather than refugees.

This comes at a time when UNHCR has stepped up the voluntary repatriation programme, including putting on more return convoys and doubling the grant (to US$200 for adults and US$50 for children) offered to those who opt to go back to the Republic of Congo.

Despite her decision to stay, life has often been difficult for Anita in Gabon. She came to the country aged 13, living in the southern town of Mouila. But things started to turn sour when her mother moved in with a violent Congolese boyfriend who used to beat the teenage girl.

"He would not let me go to school and then he chased me away. So I had to leave home at the age of 15," she recalled, adding in a trembling voice: "Since then, I have not seen my mother."

She stayed with friends until meeting a Gabonese woman, Aurelie, who became like a second mother. "She welcomed me home and she still calls and sends me small presents," revealed Anita, whose life in Gabon had begun looking up.

In 2006, she met her partner, a mason from Ghana called Francis who came to Mouila to build houses for local priests. He later asked Anita to come with him to Libreville, where he had a place to stay.

Encouraged by Francis, she enrolled in a vocational training course for employment in the hospitality industry. "I want to work as a receptionist in a hotel, a restaurant or a company," said Anita, who passed the course and is on a job hunt.

Meantime, she works occasionally in a hairdressing salon as well as looking after her pretty 14-month-old daughter. "I braid and weave hair," she explained. "Women call me and I go to their homes or they come to me."

This industrious, proud woman also does a bit of trading, buying and selling used clothing with her friend Aurelia in Mouila, and has clearly made a life for herself in Gabon. It's not difficult to understand why she wants to stay.

"It is not easy every day, but I'm happy," said the young mother. "It's much better to have a residence permit," she added. Her dream is to have a stable life, a good job and to provide for her children. But she still misses her mother.

Anita introduced her UNHCR visitors to a friend who has also applied for a residence permit. "This is a gift," she chuckled, before explaining the process she had been through to get it.

Although Anita has made her decision about the future, she is still curious about her home city of Dolisie in the south of the Republic of Congo and hopes to visit one day.

"The problem is that I have nobody there. My father died and although my mother returned there, I can't see her," she said. "There are parts of the flight we do not want to remember, but one day I want to see the city where I come from."

By Céline Schmitt in Libreville, Gabon




UNHCR country pages

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Congo's river refugees

More than 100,000 Congolese refugees have crossed the Oubangui River in search of safety in neighbouring Republic of the Congo since inter-ethnic violence erupted in their home areas late last year. They fled from Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo after Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults in October on ethnic Munzayas over fishing and farming rights in the Dongo area. The tensions have spread to other parts of the province.

The majority of the displaced are camping in public buildings and some 100 sites along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River, including with host communities. The massive influx is stretching the meagre resources of the impoverished and remote region. Help is urgently needed for both the refugees and the host communities.

The relief operation is logistically complex and expensive because the region can only be reached by plane or boat. However, few boats are available and most are in need of repair. Fuel is expensive and difficult to procure.

Congo's river refugees

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Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

UNHCR struggles to reach isolated groups of refugees who fled inter-ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 100,000 are sheltering in neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

Tens of thousands of people have reportedly fled a wave of ethnic violence in the north-west of the embattled Democratic Republic of the Congo. The civilians have fled from Equateur province, crossing the Ubangi River and seeking shelter in Republic of the Congo.