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  • Rory O'Keeffe

DRC - a lesson in why we must serve people who are not refugees, along with those who are

There are more than 73,000 South Sudanese refugees who have entered DRC since 1 January 2016, and the crossing of the border between the two states – by refugees fleeing DRC as well as those fleeing Sudan and now South Sudan as well – is nothing new.

But the two states have a patchy history, and for example, in 1998, when there were 130.000 Sudanese refugees in DRC, the Sudanese People’s Army followed them over the border, and harried the DRC natives while attempting to force people to join up. This has, of course, coloured the current movement of people into the country.

Today, many South Sudanese refugees are being sheltered and cared for by DRC residents, but both groups are suffering from the semi-anarchy which exists in the state, and leads to food shortages, devastation, poor health-care and other severe impairments to living standards. However, aid is targeted almost exclusively at the refugees, and not at the residents.

In Ituri province, residents report that they can no longer even access water, as the piece of land from which it is drawn for their whole area, has been given to refugees as part of a well-meaning, but obviously in this case severely-flawed attempt to help South Sudanese refugees increase their self-sufficiency. Other residents note that they are not even able to gain one of the few common benefits of a humanitarian response in a region: employment, because people are being hired from other regions.

The latter point is less simple than one might imagine. It is not acceptable to simply say ‘we will give jobs to the local people’ if they are not qualified to do them, and in an emergency response there is not always time to give the full training that people need. But it should of course be the longer-term aim.

But the others are, to be honest, simultaneously hard to forgive, and easy and vital to avoid.

Vital because, in situations like this, the activities of aid organisations can set up barriers between refugees and local residents which really do not need to be there, and can turn the latter group against the former.

Refugees’ needs are always likely to be greater than those of local residents, because the latter have not just been uprooted and have challenges such as not knowing the area, and the psychological difficulties caused by what they have fled, and attempting to build a new life. But that should make it easier to include them in responses where that is necessary (for example, in food, water and medical care provision). The alternative, as noted, is that rivalries and enmity can be sown where none existed, not only causing both groups to suffer but also making it far harder for aid organisations to do their jobs effectively.

It is also vital because those who are ‘ignored’ by aid agencies often also – understandably – turn their discomfort, frustration and anger towards them. In November 2013, the M23 rebel militia (made up of Rwandans sent by Rwanda’s government to seek Hutus who had fled following the genocide committed against the Tutsis, and later found by the UN to have been directed in its attacks on DRC by the Rwandan government) seized Goma, in the east of DRC.

The UN had a peace-keeping force in the city, which was unable to act, because the DRC army, which had been stationed in the city to protect it, had instead gone on a drunken rampage, looting shops and destroying properties. In anger and shame, the DRC central government demanded the army withdrew. At which point M23 marched in. The UN was powerless to act, because there was no ‘breach’ in the peace.

Even so, in Dungu, Haut-Uele Province, in the far north-east of the state, the UN buildings were attacked and burned down in protest. In that case, it was far harder to have avoided this, because the UN had not really done anything wrong to begin with (and certainly not in Dungu), but it is an indication of how a perceived failure and/or preference (in this case people feared the UN might support the M23 group) can result in an agency’s ability to work being ruined.

It is easy to avoid because really, any aid organisation which does its job properly should run a full needs assessment before it starts work, and should tailor its programmes based on local need as well as the needs of refugees in the region, particularly where local people have themselves taken on responsibility for the care and protection of refugees.

This is not a case, as in Greece, where some far-Right groups pretend that waiting in a hospital is not something refugees have to do, but that if food aid is distributed and local people do not have food, the response can be extended to help them as well.

It is fair to note that in an emergency, there is a need to move quickly, but this is why it is important to have people in the field whose role is not solely to deliver aid asap, but also to work to understand the local area better, as well as to note how situations are changing as time progresses. The failure to do this is a classic example of false economy, as the money ‘saved’ by not paying a wage to one person, can be far outweighed by the cost (in human as well as financial terms) of an agency suffering attacks, or being unable to access the people it needs to work with.

DRC is an extraordinarily complex state, which has in its recent history suffered a ‘civil war’ which resulted in the deaths of 5.2m people, exists in dire poverty, unstable government, is infested with external- and internally-recruited militias, which contains over a million internally-displaced people, and which people are fleeing for safety even as others enter from their own war-torn states.

But humanitarian organisations, starting with the UN’s aid bodies, and working all the way down to the smallest, most flexible groups, can and must be better at understanding the regions in which they work, the roots of their challenges, and the needs and desires of the people who – through choice or otherwise – live there. Anything else not only makes their work far harder, but is to an extent a dereliction of duty.

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