By Jeff Kapembwa
LUSAKA — Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu has called for a meeting with his Democratic Republic of Congo counterpart, Joseph Kabila, over the rising turmoil in the central African state as the number of asylum seekers hit 3,500 this week.
During the United Nations General Assembly in New York recently, Lungu appealed for humanitarian assistance from the international community to meet the needs of the increasing number of Congolese nations that have sought asylum in Zambia. This follows increasing turmoil, coupled with ebola and cholera cases, which have claimed several lives in the DRC.
Vincent Mwale, Zambia’s Acting Foreign Affairs Minister, said plans were underway for the two leaders to confer and share concerns at the surging war in the DRC and find a lasting solution to the matter, which threatens peace in the region.
“Yes the two leaders will soon meet to discuss the DR Congo crisis,” Mwale told The Southern Times in Lusaka, adding that the two leaders had met briefly during the inauguration of Angola’s new President Joao Lourenco in Luanda.
During the Angola meeting, the two leaders resolved to hold a meeting to discuss various issues, including peace and security in the Great Lakes region.
The two leaders will also discuss the influx of asylum seekers fleeing unrest from the DRC into Zambia and other neighbouring countries in which over 1.5 million people have been displaced amid concerns of cholera and ebola outbreaks, Mwale added.
Since last month there has been increasing fighting in the diamond and copper rich country which has displaced several people, who are entering Zambia mainly through Chiengi in the north-east, which borders the DRC, and are camped at Nchelenge where humanitarian agencies have been overwhelmed by demand for various needs, including medicine, food and shelter, among other needs as it is feared the number could increase if the warring parties in that country continue fighting.
According to Zambia Red Cross spokesperson, Bruce Mulenga, the agencies have been overwhelmed by the escalating number of asylum seekers, mainly women and children, forcing them to secure more land to accommodate the refugees.
“Initially we had expected 1,000 refugees but the number has risen to over 3,500 and more are expected to trek into Zambia seeking asylum,” Mulenga said by phone from Nchelenge where the asylum seekers are camped awaiting repatriation to designated refugee camps, including Maheba in north-western Zambia near the border with Angola.
The increasing number of asylum seekers has forced the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the International Organisation for Migration and the Red Cross to secure more land, tarpaulin tents and other logistics to meet the increasing number who have not been accommodated for lack of space as they continue to flock to the country. .
“We have over 200 families, mainly malnourished children and pregnant women as well as men who are yet to be accommodated in our camps but we don’t have enough logistics to meet the growing needs….so far the UNHCR has secured over 30 tarpaulin tents to create room for new comers but we need more food and medicines to cater for everyone,” Mirriam Malunga, the UNHCR spokeswoman said in an interview.
Zambia’s Minister of the Interior, Stephen Kampyongo, added his concern with a call to all warring parties in the DR Congo to resolve their differences and avert a human catastrophe.
“The refugee situation is alarming, we are receiving an average 100-150 refugees daily and this is not good for the region. Our appeal is that the DR Congo factions must come to an understanding and stop the war,” he told Lusaka-based journalists on Sunday.
Zambia, is, however mindful of the possibility of refugees being victims of various problems and is screening all asylum seekers to avoid dissidents and those infected with ebola, cholera as well as other health related cases in conformity with the United Nations rules of asylum seekers, Chitalu Chilufya, the Health Minister said.
“We welcome our brothers and sisters from DR Congo given the prevailing situation but we are screening them thoroughly to avoid people with ebola, cholera and other cases entering Zambia as demanded under the UN set regulations,” he said.
The conflict between government and rebels in the eastern DRC has been compounded by the outbreak of cholera and ebola, prompting the World Health Organisation to donate over US$400,000 to meet medicinal needs and reduce the spread of the two diseases in affected areas.
Reports by the WHO show that a staggering 560 people have died from cholera, ebola and other related diseases in recent months. This has prompted the UN health agency to contribute US$400,000 to assist in fighting the escalating pandemics reported to be rife in Goma and Kinshasa, among other areas.
The recent victims are compared to last year’s 817 that perished from the diseases last year.
The recent outbreak of cholera has affected 20 out of 26 provinces, the UN health agency added.
There is an estimated 1.4 to 4.3 million cases of cholera being recorded worldwide each year.
As at 2 September, Congolese authorities had recorded 24, 217 suspected cases of cholera.
The last cholera outbreak occurred in 2003.
SADC leaders are worried by the security situation in the DRC and at their summit in Pretoria, South Africa, in August, urged the Congolese to peacefully find a lasting solutions to problems in that country.
The DRC was supposed to go for elections in December this year to choose a new president to replace incumbent Joseph Kabila, but these have been pushed to a later date.
Among the challenges SADC noted was that it would be unrealistic for the DRC to hold elections in December 2017 as originally planned and it urged the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) to publicise the revised electoral calendar in consultation with the government and the National Council for Monitoring the Implementation (CNSA) of the agreement signed 31 December last year.
The SADC Summit also called upon the international community and all stakeholders to continue supporting the implementation of the 31 December 2016 Agreement and respecting the wishes of the Congolese people with a view to ensuring the sustainable peace, security and stability of the DRC.
It further urged all stakeholders to refrain from actions that would undermine the political and security stability with regard to developments which led to the escalation of violence and insecurity in the Kasai Provinces in eastern DRC.
The SADC leaders approved the appointment a Special Envoy to the DRC in light of the political and security dynamics, particularly in preparation for the elections and mandated the SADC Chairperson, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and the outgoing Chairperson King Mswati III to finalize consultations and the appointment of the Special Envoy.
During the 37th SADC Heads of State and Government summit in last month, Congolese nationals living in that country petitioned the meeting demanding that the regional bloc intervenes in the conflict in that country.