Charlie Walker

Charlie Walker (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Charlie completed an undergraduate degree in International Relations and French at the University of Leeds. Charlie earned a Masters degree in Post-War Recovery at the University of York, and her research took her to the Eastern Congo where she encountered SOS Femmes en Danger (SOSFED). Charlie has also worked with vulnerable migrants in Spain and Britain, and with the British Red Cross. After her fellowship at SOSFED, Charlie wrote: “Perhaps the most significant cultural understanding that I gleaned from the experience was a deeper knowledge of the position of women in Congolese society, and of the value of women’s rights education to empower women and encourage their husbands, fathers and brothers to support such a process of empowerment."

Pre-election Unrest and Pre-empted Expulsion: Precarious Times for Congolese at Home and Abroad

03 Nov

It would appear that the Tanzanian government have begun expelling Congolese citizens from their territory on the tense eve of Congolese elections, scheduled for the 28th of this month. UNOCHA reports this week that 398 individuals have been deported from Tanzania to Fizi Territory, following the identification of “irregular migrants” in Nyagurusu, the last remaining camp for Congolese refugees in Tanzania, which currently hosts some 63,000 Congolese refugees who have fled conflict and insecurity in the DRC over the past 15 years.

On the 22nd October the migrants were transferred from Nyagurusu to Kigoma, northern Tanzania, where a boat was waiting to ferry them to the port of Mushimbaki in Baraka. According to the CNR – the refugee agency of the Congolese government – the move follows an announcement that 565 inhabitants with “irregular immigration status” had been identified in the camp, and a warning from the Tanzanian government that they would be expelled from the country.

As perhaps the only consistently stable country of the Great Lakes region, Tanzania has played generous host to huge numbers of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and the DRC over the past few decades. Since 1996, the county has hosted in excess of 150,000 Congolese refugees, as ensuing outbreaks of conflict in the DRC have been accompanied by simultaneous waves of mass displacement. Recent actions on the part of the Tanzanian government however, appear to indicate that patience for refugees to return home is running out.

Rush to Provide Humanitarian Support for Unforeseen Deportee Landing in Baraka

No warning was given for the date of the deportation, which took place over the 22nd and 23rd October, and agencies were caught unawares when the boat carrying over 300 landed on Congolese soil. Similarly, no explanation was given for the irregularity of the individuals concerned, so it is unclear as to how they failed to fulfil conditions for refugee status. Worryingly, whilst the manifest stated that there were 398 deportees onboard, Congolese authorities registered only 337 upon arrival. It is thought that the missing 61 may have escaped during transit in Tanzania.

UNHCR Compound, Uvira

UNHCR Compound, Uvira

Those deported were temporarily accommodated in UNHCR’s transit centre at the port of Mushimbaki, where the Congolese authorities, including the CNR – the refugee agency of the Congolese state – and others including CARITAS, the ICRC and the national Red Cross Society quickly worked to provide humanitarian support. However, the alleged irregular status of the individuals concerned meant that they do not fall under UNHCR’s mandate, nor that of the CNR, and thus after an emergency 48 hour period, agencies were forced to cut off support. The CNR coordinated transport provided by CARITAS for some 130 individuals hailing from Uvira territory, however those from Fizi were left to return home by their own means. Some deportees were from as far away as Kinshasa – some 300km west of Baraka, and Red Cross representatives noted that some of the deportees had been in Nyagurusu for up to 3 years or longer. This prompts the fundamental question – why choose this tense moment for expulsion?

Refugees Under Pressure to Return

Disturbingly, the deportation last week appears to be the most recent in a number of efforts aimed at ousting the long-resident refugee population from Tanzanian territory. Repatriation of Congolese refugees who had fled conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s swiftly progressed between 2005-2009, with over 50,000 refugees returned. However the process stalled 2009 as a result of successive Congolese military operations intended to oust the FDLR, a Rwandan-dominated rebel group based in eastern DRC. The operations had limited military success, but devastating consequences for the civilian population. Over a million were displaced, thousands killed and/or raped, and repatriation resolutely ground to halt.

Rebels on the move

Rebels on the move

Throughout 2011, the Government of Tanzania has been taking increasingly tough measures to re-ignite the repatriation process. These have included “Come and See” and “Go and Tell” visits, facilitated by UNHCR, whereby refugees are given the opportunity to visit home to assess the situation, before returning to the camps and relaying what they have experienced to their compatriots, with situation briefings from UN, government, and other agencies’ staff.

In addition, increasingly coercive push tactics appear to have been employed in Nyagurusu camp, where allegedly rations have been reduced, and markets, shops, churches and schools shut down. Any remaining doubts of the government’s determination to see the camp emptied were resolutely crushed at a June meeting of the Tripartite Commission on Return (made up of the Congolese and Tanzanian governments and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency). Talks broke down as Tanzania announced a deadline of February 2012 for all refugees to be returned – a proposition which overtly violates international refugee law. At a more recent meeting of the tri-partite commission, one source reported that the Tanzanian government had gone so far as to demand that UNHCR provide transport for the mass deportation executed last week:

“They were effectively saying, ‘Take them, we have had enough!’ They want to show their determination for Congolese refugees to leave.”

However, in refugee law and UNHCR guiding principles, refugee return must be voluntary, and must take place in conditions of safety and dignity. Most notably, the cornerstone of refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states are expressly forbidden from returning refugees to “territories where their life or freedom would be threatened”.

Threats to Life and Freedom in Fizi and Uvira Territories

Fizi Territory, where the 398 individuals were deported by the Tanzanian authorities, is currently experiencing chronic insecurity and outright armed conflict. Clashes between the FARDC (the Congolese national army) and Mai Mai Yakutumba, a local militia group, have escalated since August of this year. The group has taken control of the Ubwari Peninsula, displacing several thousand people, raping women throughout the area, and kidnapping Fizi’s Financial Administrator in the process. They have attacked Baraka – the largest urban centre in the territory, ambushed an NGO convoy killing 7 people, and allegedly this week attacked Kabumbe, a village approximately 14km from Uvira, causing the entire population to flee. Aid and development agencies – including Oxfam, Tear Fund and GiZ – have pulled out all but essential staff from the territory, and UNOCHA this week warned that if insecurity persisted, travel in the region may soon become impossible without an armed UN escort vehicle.

UN Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC - MONUSCO

UN Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC - MONUSCO

This is not only the case in Fizi. Uvira Territory, where the remainder of those deported were returned, is also suffering from increasing levels of violence and armed activity in the lead up to the presidential elections, scheduled for less than a month’s time. In Marungu, situated in the Moyen Plateau of Uvira, the UN Protection Cluster reports that at least 8 NGO vehicles were attacked in the space of a month and a half by armed groups. Movement of the Mai Mai group Bede towards a village near Lemera in the Moyen Plateau this month caused the flight of 64 households, leaving the village of Kahanda deserted. Inter-ethnic tensions and ensuing clashes between Banyamulenge and Bembe communities in Itombwe – part of the Haut Plateau of Uvira – have left three dead and four wounded in this past week. Over the past month, several buses carrying civilians between Uvira and Bukavu have been attacked by armed groups, who have proceeded to steal money and goods, and in one case, attacked passengers with machetes.

Sexual violence remains at chronic levels throughout the entire east of the country, with countless women, children and in some cases men, targeted on a daily basis with violent attacks. All groups – including the national army – are equally implicated such acts of heinous violence.

The entire province of South Kivu is on high alert. One can’t help but feel the presence of armed groups on the fringes of urban centres more intimately than usual, bristling with nervous energy and breathing down our necks. Everyone is poised for something, though as yet no one is sure exactly what. Aid agencies are gradually cutting down staff to ensure a minimum presence for the elections. Workers are taking extended holidays, attending trainings elsewhere, or arranging to lie-in-wait in neighbouring countries as the election process unfolds. The minimum staff staying are attending UN meetings on evacuation, discussing emergency radio procedures, having their houses registered and evaluated by UN troops, discussing the security incidents of the day and the heightened army presence in hushed tones over a cold Primus before rushing home so as not to be outdoors after the 9pm Uvira-wide curfew. Of course, all of these are precautionary measures, and as UN security services remind us, should not be taken as a sign of certain unrest and violence to come, as such prophesies are dangerous: they have a tendency to become self-fulfilling.

Looming Elections: The Ultimate Test for Congo

Back in Tanzania, the refugee population does not live in ignorance of these facts. There are extended lines of communication between Nyagurusu and South Kivu, and Congolese refugees are well informed of insecurity, and the risks associated with the coming elections – only the second in Congo’s history. This is the principal reason, amongst others, for which they choose not to return during this fragile period of watching and waiting. They know, just as the 41 agencies who released a joint statement yesterday do, that:

“This election in [DR] Congo is the ultimate test. Is [DR] Congo on course to consolidate its fledgling democracy or return to a state of widespread instability, insecurity and violence?”

That the Government of Tanzania should attempt to force Congolese refugees out at such a fragile moment for the DRC, is not only irresponsible and morally wrong, but illegal according to international refugee law. The expulsion of these 398 deemed “irregular migrants” is sadly something that the government cannot be held accountable for: those who do not possess refugee status are not entitled to international protection from non-refoulement. However, this sets a dangerous precedent, and – as the last in a long line of activities aimed at ousting Congolese from Nyagurusu – sends a strong message to the 63,000 deemed “true” refugees by the Tanzanian authorities: “You are no longer welcome here.”

Posted By Charlie Walker

Posted Nov 3rd, 2011

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