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Spotlight on Congolese Asylum Seekers

Displaced children in North Kivu await aid. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)
Friday, November 07, 2008

November 7, 2008

Influx of Congolese Asylum Seekers to Uganda

by Stephen Kuteesa, Urban Program Kampala, JRS Uganda

Widespread atrocities and human rights violations like gang rapes, murders, massacres, looting and abductions are common woes faced by innocent civilians, most of them women and children, who are forced to flee from the war-torn North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since mid September 2008, massive numbers of Congolese asylum seekers have been reported to have entered Uganda, their number estimated at 7000 by October 20, 2008, according to the UN Integrated Regional Information Network.

Seventy percent of those fleeing are temporarily staying in the southwestern border areas of Uganda, hoping to return if the situation in their home villages normalizes. Others however, continue their way to Kampala with great hopes of finding help there.

The attacks in North Kivu are claimed to be carried out by rebel factions, the majority of them being under the command of Tutsi Rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda, but also from the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and the National Army.

For a long time, North Kivu has been the fighting ground for many rebel faction groups, and it has seen thousands of non-combatant civilians dead, abducted and displaced.

Banda (not his real name), himself a refugee, recalls:  "Being born in North Kivu has become the principle reason for having to run for my life. Yesterday I was a refugee in Burundi, today in Uganda, tomorrow in Rwanda. I no longer have a family. My wife was raped to death, my daughters turned into sex slaves for rebels, and worse still, my own sons were abducted to later attack me as rebels."

Unfortunately the situation in Congo has worsened at a time when UNHCR intended to hold tripartite arrangements with Congo and Uganda governments to voluntarily repatriate the Congolese.

JRS Urban Program could feel the impact of an increased number of Congolese asylum seekers as the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) denied granting refugee status to the Congolese, which forced them to go through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) before being relocated to settlements.

Nevertheless, JRS is networking with other refugee-serving organizations to advocate to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to refer desperate asylum seekers without status to the settlement, and to UNHCR to provide transportation of those being referred.

To receive more support for affected asylum seekers, JRS also closely collaborates on a large scale with religious institutions and organizations assisting people living with HIV/AIDS as well as victims of torture, and sexual and gender-based violence.

Counseling saves Lives: The Case of a Congolese Refugee Woman

by Mulugeta W/Eyesus, Refugee Community Center Project Director, JRS Ethiopia

Elizabeth Mathews (not her real name), a 24-year-old Congolese refugee, arrived in Ethiopia in 2004 after crossing the harsh bushes and forests of Uganda and Kenya. She was forced to leave her homeland because of the civil war. Her father was killed by gunmen and she does not know exactly where her mother is.

Elizabeth has two sons. She doesn’t know the father of her first born because she conceived him after she was raped by soldiers during the civil war. It was after this experience that she decided to leave her homeland.

On arrival in Addis Ababa she was welcomed and supported by the JRS Emergency Needs Program (ENP) and the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). For a long time Elizabeth has been attending the English language class at the JRS Refugee Community Center (RCC), and her elder son is benefiting from the services given at the day-care section of the Center as a child with special needs.

Elizabeth is currently a single mother and has immense difficulties in managing life. A month ago she gave birth to her second son. During her pregnancy, the father abandoned her, leaving her all alone with a young child who suffered mental illness and epilepsy.

She had turned to RCC office for help explaining the challenges she was facing along with her pregnancy.

"At that moment, I thought of aborting my baby," she says, "but thanks to the maternity advice and counseling given by the Project Director of ENP and the Education Coordinator of RCC, I managed to change my mind and give birth."