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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Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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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