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Ongoing insecurity in eastern DRC could derail coronavirus containment

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An internally displaced woman washes her hands before receiving cash assistance at Kigonze site, Ituri Province, the Democratic Republic of the Congo © UNHCR

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is warning that the latest rounds of violence in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) displacing thousands of people could unleash terrible consequences for the country as it grapples to initiate a new fight against the deadly coronavirus.

More than five million people have been uprooted by conflict within the DRC’s borders, the single-largest internally displaced population in Africa. The country also hosts over half a million refugees, fleeing unrest and persecution in the neighbouring countries.

Recent attacks in North Kivu and Ituri provinces are reported to have displaced more than 35,000 people in recent weeks including some 25,000 in villages south of Lubero territory.

In the meantime, security has deteriorated in the Djugu Territory in Ituri province, where a growing number of attacks by unknown assailants have displaced over 12,000 persons so far this month.

These attacks hamper humanitarian access, hinder assistance to desperate displaced people, and disrupt vital coordination on COVID-19 prevention and sensitization.

Ongoing violence and insecurity in other parts of the country could also make it harder for the displaced to access public health facilities. Many areas and sites hosting displaced people are also overcrowded, making it difficult to implement physical and social distancing.

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in DRC with 287 confirmed cases and 23 deaths, mainly in the capital Kinshasa, UNHCR is working closely with other UN and humanitarian partners to prevent the spread of the disease among refugees and the internally displaced. At the same time, we continue our activities to protect and assist refugees and internally displaced people.

As to date, no cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported among refugees and asylum seekers in the DRC. UNHCR is redoubling its efforts to implement prevention and response measures in refugee camps and sites.

We are extremely concerned that insecurity and diminishing humanitarian access will generate major challenges for the country, already overwhelmed and under-resourced with its health services.

Insecurity in the East had forced UNHCR partners to withdraw staff from displacement sites in Drodro and Bule in the Ituri province at the end of March, leaving displaced people without effective support. UNHCR and its partners have facilitated the establishment of 14 humanitarian committees to temporarily provide remote management, until the security situation improves.

Our efforts also continue against COVID-19 despite challenges in many other parts of DRC – as we draw lessons from the world’s second-largest Ebola epidemic, which has been affecting the country since 2018.

UNHCR is strengthening its regular health and sanitization activities in camps, sites and transit centres where possible. The present prevention COVID-19 measures include temperature screening at entry points of camps, sites and transit centres, and have installed some 365 hand-washing stations, and carried out an initial distribution of more than 23,000 soap bars.

UNHCR is also conducting mass awareness-raising activities on health measures being implemented by the Government and on guidance on preventive measures to lower the risk of infection.

Refugees and displaced persons often express fears about the virus, mainly as a result of misinformation. While physical distancing can be challenging in overcrowded camps or settlements, the advice to regularly wash hands is globally keenly followed.

Across DRC, UNHCR is also supporting the national healthcare system to scale-up its response. We are for instance setting up three isolation centres in the Kasai province where patients with COVID-19 symptoms will be referred to for treatment, hence limiting the burden on public hospitals and health structures.

We are also, together with our partners, delivering medical equipment, beds, masks, gloves and other materials to help address critical shortages in areas hosting refugees and internally displaced persons. These are often in remote locations where there is already a lack of basic healthcare infrastructure and frequent medicine supply shortages.

Meanwhile, we are maintaining existing programmes where possible. We continue to assist with cash-based interventions to support the displaced in North Kivu province to meet a variety of needs, including access to food, healthcare and shelter. We are now using mobile money transfers to reduce physical contacts and have provided over 5,900 internally displaced households with mobile phones and SIM cards.

Furthermore, nearly some 2,000 Burundian asylum-seekers who have recently arrived and remain in a transit centre in South Kivu province, will be transferred to a permanent settlement. Temporary shelters are currently under construction and these new arrivals will remain in quarantine for 14 days and will receive cash for shelter to build their own shelters through mobile money transfers.

UNHCR continues its advocacy for equal access to refugees and displaced people in the national health systems being put in place to fight COVID-19.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Kinshasa, DRC, Johannes Van Gemund, gemund@unhcr.org, + 243 817 0009 484
  • In Kinshasa, DRC, Fabien Faivre, faivre@unhcr.org, + 243 825 443 419
  • In Pretoria, Helene Caux, caux@unhcr.org, + 27 82 376 5190
  • In Geneva, Charlie Yaxley, yaxley@unhcr.org, +41 795 808 702
  • In Geneva, Babar Baloch, baloch@unhcr.org, +41 79 513 9549