South Sudanese Refugees In DRC: Impressions From The Field

More than 60,000 South Sudanese refugees are hosted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They have fled fighting in the Equatoria region of their home country. Most of them are women and children. While more are arriving daily, they are being settled away from the border at Biringi (Ituri province) and other sites in the province of Haut-Uele. 

Diplomats and donors went to Aru in Ituri province in November to assess refugee needs, the status of the Biringi site and the early response of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and of the World Food Program (WFP). They met the local authorities, humanitarian organizations and, most importantly, the refugees themselves. Following the field visit, we asked each member of the delegation for their impressions.

1.    What are your impressions of the situation of South Sudanese refugees you've met?

I was impressed! Thanks to the work of humanitarian actors, the refugees weren’t in as bad a condition as I had anticipated. However, you could still see in their faces the stress they had gone through during their flight. I think it's a great approach, to leave a lot of space between the shelters in the new site in Biringi and to provide farmland for the refugees there.  

Karl Philipp Ehlerding, First Secretary at the German Embassy in DRC

2.    What are your impressions concerning the welcoming of the refugees from the host population and from the Congolese authorities?

The Congolese authorities and the population have proved to be very open, involved and enthusiastic. I wish we had the same open hearts in Europe with the Syrian refugees. At the border with South Sudan, there is still work to do in order to sensitize the refugees and explain the need to relocate them away from the border for their own safety.  

Annelies de Backer, Head of Belgian Cooperation in DRC

3.    Food assistance at the new site in Biringi will consist of money transfers directly to the refugees: what do you think about that?

It's a win - win solution for both refugees and host population: the beneficiaries have the opportunity to choose the food they want to eat, which increases their dignity. It also allows to support the local economy and facilitate their integration into the host community. Cash transfers are also interesting from a gender point of view because it is often the women who are in charge of spending and they are the ones getting the money.

Björn Holmgren, Second Secretary at the Embassy of Sweden in DRC

4.    How can we achieve self-sufficiency among the refugees?

The most important thing is that refugees are able to develop their own livelihoods and that they have access to the same opportunities they had in their own country. Although the operations is at an early stage, what we saw during this visit is encouraging, especially because host communities seem to be very welcoming. The ideal would be to reach the same situation as in Uganda where South Sudanese refugees have a good degree of freedom of movement and work, which is positive for their food security and promotes self-sufficiency.

Jean Woynicki, Regional coordinator for refugees from the Embassy of the United States in Uganda

5.    During the interviews with young refugees at Biringi, what struck you the most?

Firstly, it's their journey, the trials they overcame and their extreme vulnerability, especially the young girls'. Then, during the discussions, we heard their optimism, their desire to move forward and get involved in community life by helping the most vulnerable, elderly or unaccompanied children. In response to their very legitimate concerns regarding access to education, health or sports and cultural activities, their energy should be channeled and used wisely. It is essential to preserve social peace between refugees as well as with the host populations: it is a crucial element in the UNHCR’s 'alternative to the camps' strategy.

Sébastien Dauré, Attaché for regional Cooperation / humanitarian correspondent at the Embassy of France in DRC

6.    UNHCR and WFP are implementing a joint operation in support of the South Sudanese refugees: how do you view this?

This is vital because protection and food security are the most important issues in this emergency situation. But this collaboration must go beyond the humanitarian emergency and be part of a broader approach in order to quickly reach a greater empowerment of refugees within the populations that have generously hosted them. It is also necessary to expand the operation and include a larger number of actors as part of a holistic approach.

Thomas Deherman-Roy, Head of the ECHO regional Office, Kinshasa - Great Lakes region

7.    What should the role of the international community be in this South Sudanese refugee crisis?

A humanitarian gap is emerging in terms of healthcare, education and protection. The large scale of the emergency situation requires a common response. UNHCR and WFP will need to encourage and coordinate the activity of other actors, and donors are responsible to support them in this venture. Beside the local approach, a regional solution for South Sudan and for the refugees must be found and we would encourage UNHCR and WFP to harness the strength of their regional offices and make sure information is regularly shared. This is an opportunity for us to look into new ideas to address this long lasting violence cycle in South Sudan and how the response in DRC to the influx of refugees can be appropriate to the context. 

Campbell McDade, Coordinator for Eastern DRC for DFID