DR Congo

Outdated Approach, Misplaced Priorities

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  • The Humanitarian Country Team, UN Humanitarian Coordinator, and Emergency Relief Coordinator should approve the activation of a national Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) cluster co-led by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to jointly support official camps, spontaneous sites, and host families.

  • UNHCR, IOM, and the Congolese government should finalize criteria on the requirements for classification as an official camp, and should conduct a reassessment of current classifications of camps and spontaneous sites.

  • Camp coordinators should establish a more sustained presence in Masisi territory and remote areas by opening joint offices and working with donors to fund appropriate numbers of camp management staff.
    The U.S., UK, and EU should work to reduce displaced women and girls’ exposure to gender-based violence (GBV) by improving basic service delivery through funding the North Kivu Response Plan. Donors should also support programs that distribute cooking fuel and provide lifesaving GBV services in or near all camps and sites.

  • The U.S. and European donors should strengthen assistance to internally displaced persons in the DRC. In particular, donors should increase funding for UNHCR’s and IOM’s camp coordination roles.

In the fall of 2012, hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fled their homes following fighting between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army. In North Kivu province alone, 914,000 people took shelter in camps and with host families. Unfortunately, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only coordinates support for those persons living in official camps – 112,000 people, or one ninth of the displaced population. Displaced persons in remote areas, particularly those living in “spontaneous settlements” and with host families, have been left out of coordination mechanisms, and in many cases they have received little to no assistance or protection. Gender-based violence (GBV) is rampant, and programs to protect women and girls are insufficient. Now more than ever, aid actors in the DRC need to improve aid coordination and ensure that assistance is based on vulnerability rather than status.

Classification of Official Camps and Spontaneous Sites

In North Kivu Province, UNHCR coordinates suppoNrt for 31 official camps, hosting some 112,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). The remaining 802,000 IDPs live in what are called “spontaneous settlements” or are hosted by local families. Until last month, there was no coordination of support for spontaneous sites, meaning that assistance had been inconsistent and infrequent. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is now in the process of taking up this role, but it is still in the very early stages and is not yet operational in this capacity.

Although some spontaneous settlements are small, transient sites, many mirror official camps in their size and semi-permanent nature. In 2007, the UN and the Congolese government formalized a set of camp classification criteria, but these have largely been forgotten. Today the classification of camps and spontaneous sites is based more on historical designations, rather than how a camp or site currently fits within the criteria. Two of the main criteria for official camp status are a large resident population and a secure environment, but it is evident that even those two areas have little relevance to the current designations. At present, there are 12 official camps with fewer than 2,000 people and 19 official camps in areas that are considered unsafe. Meanwhile there are at least ten spontaneous sites with over 8,000 people, many of which are in areas under firm control of the Congolese government.

Though the designation of “camps versus sites” might seem a matter of semantics, the distinction is highly significant within the current aid coordination system. Official camps are only meant to house populations who are unlikely to return home in the near future. As a result, they are typically designed to have more permanent support programs. Spontaneous sites, on the other hand, usually have more transient populations or do not meet the basic requirements to make them viable long-term. Support to spontaneous sites is focused on temporarily meeting the most basic needs, but is also geared towards returns and creating self-sufficiency. Approaches to aid for camps and sites are very different, and therefore this classification requires careful consideration.

UNHCR, IOM, and the Congolese government, in consultation with humanitarian agencies, began new discussions on the classification criteria last fall. However, these discussions have since been placed on hold. The new criteria for official camp status must be finalized as soon as possible. As IOM begins coordinating spontaneous sites, it is important that there is clarity about which sites will be coordinated by UNHCR and which by IOM, as well as a clear rationale behind the approach to service provision. To achieve this, the 31 official camps and 35 spontaneous sites in North Kivu must all be reviewed to ensure that their classifications are accurate and in line with the new criteria.

While some have argued that the “official camp” and “spontaneous settlement” designations should be eliminated, RI feels that the current coordination system is not strong enough to handle such a step. Until coordination and cooperation improves, having clear delineations of who holds responsibility for each site will allow for greater accountability and prevent sites from falling through the cracks.

Improving Aid in Masisi and Remote Areas

An estimated 260,000 displaced people live in Masisi territory in North Kivu – almost three times the number of IDPs in Goma and the surrounding areas, and the largest displaced population in the whole province. Despite this, support to IDPs in Masisi and other remote areas has been insufficient, in large part due to problems with access. In January, an RI team visited the region and spoke to families who had not received food for over six months and who lacked even basic shelter materials and cooking supplies.

It is critical that assistance is improved and scaled up in Masisi and other remote regions. For this to happen, the first step must be to establish a more sustained humanitarian presence. This is particularly important for camp coordination and camp management (CCCM) staff who, given the lack of permanent presence by most NGOs, are often the only actors overseeing protection and humanitarian needs.

In 2012, UNHCR closed its office in Masisi. The RI team was given different reasons for the closure, including security challenges, funding constraints, and the perceived lack of need for an office. However, the closure has created a dangerous disconnect between the IDPs and the humanitarian community. NGOs report that many protection threats are no longer being recognized or reported, and that the basic needs of the displaced are increasingly going unmet. RI strongly recommends that UNHCR reopen its Masisi office. This could be done in partnership with other UN agencies and IOM, in order to share costs and work jointly on security. In addition to the logistical benefits, a joint UNHCR/IOM office could be beneficial as the two agencies will be sharing camp coordination responsibilities in the region. If this model works in Masisi, then it should be applied to other territories where UNHCR has closed its offices.

Strengthening Camp Management

The presence of UNHCR and IOM camp coordination staff in remote areas like Masisi is all the more important given the absence of dedicated camp managers. UNHCR’s main NGO camp management (CM) partner is severely understaffed. Staffers from this CM organization visit each camp a few times a week at most, meaning that their understanding of the conditions and challenges is often limited. NGOs operating in the region feel that this CM organization is not well-informed and has not adequately communicated camp conditions to its humanitarian partners, thereby preventing aid actors from responding as needed. IOM has recently selected this same CM organization to implement its camp management work, so these problems could continue or even worsen.

In the absence of UNHCR and camp management staff, the only permanent presence in North Kivu’s official camps are government representatives from the Comité National pour les Réfugiés (CNR), which has limited capacity. CNR representatives work in remote regions and therefore typically cannot attend the CCCM Working Group in Goma, so it is difficult for them to share information with humanitarian partners – particularly in areas where there are no regular daily interactions with NGOs.

The situation in spontaneous sites in Masisi and remote areas is even more challenging. Because they lack official camp status, these spontaneous settlements do not receive CNR staff or police protection. As IOM begins to coordinate these sites, it will need to develop a comprehensive plan on how to ensure effective oversight of conditions. Additionally, IOM will need to analyze the protection threats at the various sites and work with partners and beneficiaries to design an effective protection strategy in the absence of the police. IOM should also look at ways of supporting local protection initiatives.

The European Union, United States, and UN agencies must increase funding for camp management staff in both camps and sites. Additionally, UNHCR and IOM should push their CM partner organization to bring in experienced camp management staff, and they must monitor its work more closely to ensure that it accurately represents the needs in the camps, communicates those needs to partners, and acts as an advocate for protection of the displaced.

Reform of the Camp Coordination System

While the challenges of coordinating individual camps and sites in North Kivu are significant, the overall system of camp coordination in the DRC requires a full reevaluation at the national level. There is widespread displacement across much of the country, and yet North Kivu is the only province with an official camp coordination system. As UNHCR expands its camp coordination work to other provinces, and IOM begins coordinating spontaneous sites, it is essential that there is a unified, national coordination mechanism that allows for inclusive discussion not only of official camps, but also of spontaneous sites and host families.

Going forward, the Humanitarian Country Team, UN Humanitarian Coordinator, and Emergency Relief Coordinator should approve a national Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) cluster to jointly manage the coordination of official camps, spontaneous sites, and host families. To ensure that IDPs are treated equally in both official and unofficial sites, UNHCR and IOM should co-lead both the national cluster and the cluster in Goma. Additionally, a Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) should be created to include government representatives, key UN agencies, and relevant NGOs. The SAG can provide input and guidance to UNHCR and IOM as they develop and implement a more holistic approach to supporting the displaced. Such a system would have the following benefits:

  • Spontaneous sites, host families, and official camps would be given equal emphasis, allowing beneficiaries to be considered based on vulnerability rather than status.

  • Camp coordination would have an advocate at the national level who could respond more rapidly to new population movements outside of North Kivu and give CCCM a voice in high-level policy meetings.

  • The cluster would have access to funds through subsequent Humanitarian Action Plans and pooled funding.

  • UNHCR and IOM would have the opportunity to work together and share expertise on camp coordination strategies, and could work collaboratively on approaches to new displacement and durable solutions.

The idea of a CCCM cluster is unpopular within the humanitarian community, which has largely lost confidence in the current camp coordination system. While RI agrees with many of their concerns, including IOM as a co-lead should improve the situation. Camp coordination currently takes place in a working group, and some have suggested that there should simply be a national-level working group, or perhaps two working groups operating side-by-side to coordinate official camps and spontaneous sites. RI feels that establishing a national cluster rather than a working group gives CCCM a more authoritative voice in larger humanitarian coordination structures, and will provide an easier pathway to desperately needed funding. Likewise, it is of paramount importance that the coordination mechanism – whether a cluster or a working group – be well integrated and not create parallel systems.

Women and Girls

Camps and spontaneous sites in eastern DRC are failing to provide adequate security for women and girls because minimum standards to prevent GBV have not been followed. The situation is most dire in spontaneous sites, where aid distributions are infrequent and there is often no site planning. However, even in official camps, camp managers and CNR staff do not adhere to the minimum standards. In February, RI found very basic protection gaps across the board, including communal shelters where single men and women live together, exposing women to harm. The scraps of wood and plastic tarps used to create shelters do not provide adequate protection or deter perpetrators. Camp managers and those responsible for water, sanitation, shelter, and other sectors must focus on the safety needs of women and girls and ensure that camps meet the minimum standards for preventing GBV.

Given the lack of basic services for IDPs in the DRC, displaced women must risk rape, assault, and exploitation to ensure their family’s survival. RI was told about the frequent use of sex as a survival strategy to obtain food. Even when food is available, women still require cooking fuel for meal preparation, which is not regularly distributed by any humanitarian organization. Women therefore leave the relative safety of their camps approximately five times per week to forage for firewood, which they also use to generate income to buy food if none is available.

The risks associated with firewood collection in eastern DRC have been well known for years. When women forage for firewood, they are exposed to attacks by armed actors who patrol the area. RI was told that approximately fifty rapes are reported in the camps near Goma each month. And yet funding to combat this problem has actually decreased, with one agency recently halting its cooking fuel distribution program due to a funding shortfall. Displaced women living across North Kivu told RI that sexual violence associated with firewood collection is their top protection concern, and they demanded that fuel be distributed immediately.

Lifesaving GBV services – including specialized medical care, emotional support, and the creation of safe spaces – are somewhat available in the camps and sites closest to Goma, but significantly less so in Masisi. In many remote areas, psychosocial services are not available at all and clinical care for rape survivors is only available from a mobile clinic once per week. Thus survivors cannot regularly access care during the 72 hour window when the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections can be prevented.

While GBV interventions are included in the latest Humanitarian Action Plan, in 2012, less than one percent of the DRC Pooled Fund’s allocation for eastern DRC went to GBV programming. The U.S., UK, and EU must urgently address the shortage of lifesaving GBV services for displaced women and girls, and they must ensure that specialized GBV services are provided in or near all camps and sites. They must also increase funding for programs that provide cooking fuel to prevent women from venturing out of camps and into danger.

Additionally, donors must support improved provision of basic services through the North Kivu Response Plan, launched in January of this year. The plan calls for $30.5 million to be allocated specifically to food, health, sanitation, and shelter, and will reduce the need for displaced women and girls to expose themselves to violence in order to meet their basic needs.

Despite the extremely high prevalence of GBV in eastern DRC, and the widespread knowledge that it is a problem, GBV is largely invisible in the humanitarian system because coordination is exclusively managed through the comprehensive strategy to combat sexual violence. For more information on this arrangement and the challenges it presents, please see RI’s report, DR Congo: Poor Coordination Obstructs Emergency Response to Gender-based Violence.

Funding Needs

In order to address the challenges described above, humanitarian agencies will need greater funding. Financial constraints have forced agencies to close offices and cut key staff positions. UNHCR currently has half the number of camp coordination staff that it did in 2008, even though the number of displaced persons has more than doubled. This has made it impossible for the agency to maintain the same level of presence and involvement in the camps, and coordination and service provision have suffered as a result.

In the DRC, UNHCR’s shift back to what the agency considers its “core mandate” responsibility of prioritizing refugees over IDPs has been acutely felt by all humanitarian actors. Increasingly, UNHCR is reallocating resources to Congolese who have crossed into Rwanda and Uganda, despite the fact that the recent violence has produced only 68,000 new refugees as compared to over 500,000 new IDPs. Because UNHCR remains the main camp coordinator, its lack of prioritization of IDPs affects all other actors, even when the mandates of other agencies specifically relate to IDP support.

Donors, in particular the U.S., UK, and the EU, should push UNHCR and other agencies to prioritize assistance to IDPs in the DRC. Donors also must increase funding to improve camp coordination. Without additional funding, UNHCR will be unable to effectively carry out the coordination of official camps, and it will be difficult for IOM to take on the very challenging task of coordinating spontaneous sites.

Caelin Briggs and Marcy Hersh assessed the humanitarian situation of internally displaced persons in the DRC in January and February 2013.