Refugee return to eastern DRC

International Alert recently published a report on Refugee return to eastern DRC, a discussion document that explores and warns of the dangers posed by the issue of returning refugees from Rwanda to North Kivu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Inter-community violence and successive wars and rebellions have caused large-scale displacements of populations in the Great Lakes region of Africa. This displacement of people has the potential of being exploited for the sake of political interests, as does their return. When refugees and internally displaced people return home, this can be the pretext for further outbreaks of violence when rumours and false information are orchestrated to heighten fears and tensions between communities. All this is currently occurring to some degree in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), particularly in North Kivu.

Inter-ethnic tensions, involving the closely linked issues of identity, nationality and land access, have been taking place in North Kivu for many years. Recent assertions that thousands of Congolese refugees are returning from Rwanda have created tensions that could develop into a renewed outbreak of violence if the question of the return of refugees is not managed in a transparent, sensitive and fair manner.

Most refugees fled the former Zaire between 1992 and 1995; the majority left in a hurry, either abandoning their land, or selling it at whatever price they could get. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates, there are presently around 50,000 Congolese refugees in camps in Rwanda.

The first movements of refugee return took place after 2002. While Congolese authorities state that, to date, over 12,500 refugees have returned to North Kivu, NGOs suggest a broad range of other figures. Various declarations are contradictory, discourses are deliberately confused and statements made by the UNHCR and the Congolese authorities seem ambiguous. Either way, following visits to the relevant districts by International Alert and the UN Mission, MONUC, it does seem that since April 2009 there has been a significant population movement from Rwanda to these areas.

The question of land is one of the most sensitive issues in respect to the return of refugees to North Kivu, argues International Alert’s report. While refugees have the right to return to their land, this does risk causing conflict as competition for land increases. The potential for violence that conflict for land creates is highlighted by testimonies received by UN agencies as well as NGOs such as International Alert. Several witnesses from Ngungu assert that authorities belonging to the CNDP, a politico-military movement, have used violence to force people to give up their properties in favour of those supporting the movement. Some analysts suggest that this practice is a “land-grab policy” designed to create a geographic space for those that support the CNDP, and consequently leads to the displacement of the part of the population that opposes the movement. Some even argue that there is a trend of “forced displacement” to favour the return of refugees.

This is why the issue of land is essential, and the need for a fair resolution of land disputes is critical for avoiding tensions linked to refugee return. Not only must the rights of the returnees to access their land be respected, but also those of other population groups. Measures to assist those that are forced to forfeit land must be put in place in order to manage tensions provoked by “disorganised” refugee returns.

According to some analysts, the “disorganised” return of the refugees is the cost of the recent diplomatic rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, as well as the peace agreements signed between the CNDP and the Congolese Government. However, it is rather questions concerning demographic pressures, land rights, nationality and identity that lie at the origin of the conflicts in North Kivu. These issues can be manipulated by political forces to create ethnic hatred and xenophobia leading to the risk of the situation eventually degenerating in a similar way to the “ethnic wars” of the early 1990s. This threat of renewed tensions is especially acute if refugee return is not managed in a fair and apolitical manner. In addressing the sensitive issue of refugee return to reduce the risk of conflict, both the governments of the DRC and Rwanda, as well as UNHCR must assume their responsibilities.