DRC in turmoil …As UNHCR, Zambia cry out for help to deal with refugee influx
By Jeff Kapembwa
Lusaka – The humanitarian crisis buffeting Zambia, as a result of the escalating influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is now an international concern that needs the attention of all actors to avert an impending catastrophe, analysts have said.
The number of DRC asylum seekers have in the past two months risen from a paltry 500 to over 6,327 at Kenani transit camp in Nchelenge in north-eastern Zambia.
It is feared that with increasing insurgence in THE DRC among warring parties that comprise Elema, an unknown rebel group fighting with bows and arrows, the Ba Tembo comprising mainly pygmies from Kivu, and government forces, refugees streaming into Zambia could double to 20,000 by the end of November.
Analysts had hoped that the just-ended International Great Lakes Region Summit hosted in Brazzaville by neighbouring Congo Republic would help restore peace not only in the DRC, but also the entire Great Lakes Region.
UNHCR says the DRC refugees require assistance from the international community to deal with the looming humanitarian challenges at the 56-hectare Kenani transit camp.
“We only had contingency for 5,000 people and with the number rising, we are now looking up to the international community to render a helping hand,” Kelvin Shimo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson in Zambia told The Southern Times at Kenani camp.
UNHCR country representative Pierrine Aylara also expressed her concern at the plight of the refugees.
“We had a small budget of about 1,000 refugees and we did not expect the number to rise to this level. Our hope is that the international community will join hands with the host country to assist the asylum seekers who lack various basic needs,” she said.
Commissioner for Refugees in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Abdon Mawere, said plans were underway to ascertain the basic needs for the upkeep of the refugees and that a budget would soon be drawn based on the findings.
“We’re still doing needs assessment and for now, it’s difficult to draw up the budget,” Mawere said, adding that he remained hopeful that the traditional leadership, local well-wishers and other humanitarian agencies would step forward and help the UN humanitarian agency meet the needs of the asylum seekers.
Chief Mwata Kazembe, the paramount chief of the Lunda people, has offered an additional piece of land in Nchelenge and Kawambwa for the permanent settlement of the asylum seekers.
It is envisaged the resettlement would enable the UNHCR to empower the asylum seekers, and those willing to remain behind after the war to be empowered with various skills and resources to sustain them. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been providing humanitarian assistance ranging from health and other needs, while awaiting for a budget to be drawn.
“We have joined hands with UNHCR, being one of our agencies and we are providing various forms of assistance to ease their plight. We hope this confusion in DRC will come to an end soon,” Janet Logan, Zambia’s UNDP Country Representative, said in a separate interview.
She, however, urged Zambians to cherish the peace prevailing in the country and take a lesson from the escalating war in the DRC that has torpedoed peace in the mineral rich nation.
President Edgar Lungu has said the plight of the refugees at Kenani centre needs urgent humanitarian attention to overcome the challenges faced by UNHCR whose resources have been stretched while the local communities hosting refugees stand to lose with the increasing numbers.
“We, therefore, call for increased support from all humanitarian actors,” President Lungu said after touring the Kenani refugee transit centre in Nchelenge district bordering the DRC on 31 October.
“This situation will require more preparedness by the Government of Zambia, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, other United Nations agencies and cooperating partners to receive and assist the new arrivals,” he said.
The deteriorating political and security situation in the DRC has prompted the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to declare a level three emergency in the DRC, the highest possible crisis alert calling all humanitarian actors to preparation and action against an imminent humanitarian crisis.
The Zambian President fears the armed conflict along the country’s border with the DRC may more than double the number of asylum seekers to 20,000 by the end of November.
The government is contemplating scaling up security on the borders to save lives and property.
“The situation in the DR Congo is getting bad to worse. We have reports of increased armed movements on the borders and this could more than double the number of asylum seekers into Zambia,” Amos Chanda, the spokesperson for the presidency said.
“The Zambian government is actively stepping up security in the area to protect both the refugees and Zambian villages affected by insecurity in the border areas.”
Other than Nchelenge and Chiengi border crossings, the DRC refugees have been entering Zambia in small numbers through entry points in Nsumbu, Kaputa and Mpulungu district in Northern Province.
Others are coming through Kasumbalesa and Sakanya border points on the Copperbelt, as well as Kipushi and Kakoma in North-Western Province.
However, President Lungu is hopeful that the appeal for humanitarian assistance would be heeded so as to alleviate the plight of refugees.
With President Joseph Kabila remaining non-committal to the peace process amid reports that elections were only due by December 2018, it remains to be seen how the plight of the asylum seekers in Zambia and neighbouring countries would be resolved.