As fighting reaches Goma, UNHCR asking states not to return refugees

News Stories, 20 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
People carrying jerry cans gather around a water outlet in Mugunga III.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 20 (UNHCR) As thousands of Congolese flee a rebel advance, the UN refugee agency is calling on governments not to forcibly return people to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North and South Kivu provinces, pending improvement in the security and human rights situations.

"Our advisory makes the same recommendation for areas neighbouring the Kivus, particularly Katanga province which is affected by the spill-over of the conflict," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists, amid news reports that fighters from the M23 movement had captured Goma airport and entered the provincial capital of North Kivu.

"UNHCR considers people fleeing the conflict in the Kivus and nearby affected areas as likely to be needing international refugee protection. UNHCR also cautions against returning them to safer parts of DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], unless they have strong and close links there," Edwards added.

Fighting over recent months in the Kivus has been particularly intense between government forces and the rebel M23 movement in North Kivu, but also in South Kivu between government forces and other armed groups as well as between rival armed groups.

"Currently, we are especially concerned by the situation around Goma where there has been significant new displacement over the last few days," Edwards said. The M23 advance has prompted many people to flee towards Goma and Rwanda, and a spontaneous settlement at Kanyaruchinya village that hosted some 60,000 people has been virtually emptied.

Around Goma, women and children are reported to be converging at Mugunga 3 camp and various spontaneous settlements. "Many humanitarian activities have been suspended because of the security situation," Edwards noted.

Since the beginning of this year, renewed conflict in these two regions has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation and uprooted close to 650,000 people. This includes 250,000 newly displaced civilians in North Kivu and 339,000 others in South Kivu since April. Over the same period, more than 40,000 people have fled to Uganda and 15,000 to Rwanda. Burundi has been receiving around 1,000 new Congolese arrivals every month since August.

The eastern DRC region has for almost two decades been plagued by widespread violence, human rights abuses and general lawlessness by parties to the conflict, including mass rape, forced recruitment, murder and pillaging. Caught between rival groups, civilians are often targeted and abused by fighters for their supposed allegiance to the enemy.

Edwards explained that UNHCR's advisory to governments, first issued last week, "says that exclusion from refugee status may need to be looked into for individuals who may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The total number of Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries is estimated at more than 460,000. These are mainly in Uganda, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

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Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

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Over the past month, almost 6,300 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have left the Batalimo camp in the troubled Central African Republic and returned voluntarily to their homes in Equateur province. Their decision to go back is a further sign of the gravity of the situation in Central African Republic, where escalated violence since December has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced and forced almost 350,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The refugees at Batalimo were among some 20,000 Congolese who had fled to the Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic conflict back home. The return operation from Batalimo had been postponed several times for security and logistical reasons, but on April 10 the first convoy headed across the Oubangui River. The last arrived in the DRC on May 10. The UN refugee agency organized transportation of the refugees from Batalimo to the Central African Republic riverside town of Zinga, where they boarded boats for the crossing to Batanga or Libenge in Equateur province. In Batanga, the returnees were registered, provided with documentation and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate. They were then transported to their villages, where they will be monitored. Photographer Leonora Baumann followed one group back to the DRC.

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2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

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