Wednesday, May 6, 2015

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Invisible Suffering: The DRC's Unofficial IDP Camps

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict in the DRC, many of whom are now in unofficial IDP camps without protection or support.
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An unofficial 'spontaneous settlement' in Masisi, DRC. Photograph by Refugees International.

Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo:

When the sun goes down over eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kishusha camp falls into complete darkness. No light bulbs hang overhead, and no flood lights protect the perimeter. There is only the faint glow of oil lamps and cooking fires. In this darkness, soldiers from the Mai Mai Nyatura rebel group and Congolese army are able to move through the camp undetected. And without police or peacekeepers to protect them, the residents of the camp are vulnerable.

Across North Kivu, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by conflict over the past two decades. But of the estimated 914,000 displaced persons in the province, only 112,000 live in official camps managed by the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR). The rest live with host families or in so-called ‘spontaneous settlements’ like Kishusha.

These spontaneous settlements, often located closer to people’s homes so they can monitor their fields and track the security situation, are not officially recognised by the Congolese government or the UNHCR. And without official camp status, the sites do not receive the assistance or protection their residents need.

No single UN or international agency holds responsibility for responding to internal displacement. As a result, the global response to the needs of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) is often insufficient. For example, Médecins sans Frontières mobile clinic services are able to visit Kishusha and similar sites once a week, but this comes nowhere near meeting the volume of cases or the wide range of health needs.

One family’s story

“There is no security here. If the camp is attacked, we are helpless – all we can do is run”, Jacqueline, one of the displaced persons living in Kishusha's settlement, tells me as she sits crouched inside a small thatched shelter she shares with nine other people. In her arms, she holds a one-week-old baby, naked except for a borrowed blanket.

Jacqueline was born in the village of Bufumando. She grew up there, was married there, and raised a family there. But last July, everything changed. Bufumando was attacked by a rebel group known as the Raia Mutomboki (“angry citizens”). “I remember as I was running, I passed the body of a pregnant woman on the side of the path”, Jacqueline recalled. “They had cut open her stomach and removed her baby, and then put a radio inside the hole where her child had been.”

Sadly, brutal stories like this are not uncommon among displaced Congolese – nearly all who escaped can tell of horrific acts of violence and terror they witnessed in their villages.

Jacqueline and her family fled to Kishusha camp, where they have been living ever since. They, along with its 12,000 other inhabitants, have received almost no assistance. The aid distributions that do occur are haphazard and uncoordinated, leaving out hundreds of families each time and providing supplies that do not meet the real needs of the displaced.

“I fled with only the clothes that I was wearing”, Jacqueline said. “After six months, these are still the only clothes I have.”

Kishusha camp also has no clinic, so women who cannot get to the health centre in town, or who go into labour at night, must deliver their babies on the muddied floors of their makeshift shelters.

The toll of hunger

But of all challenges Jacqueline and her family face, there is one that stands out: they are hungry. In six months, there has been only one food distribution. Kishusha camp saw 28 deaths in January alone due to malnutrition and diarrhoea. Severely malnourished mothers have difficulty breastfeeding, and their infants are beginning to starve.

“When our children die we do not even have enough to give them a proper burial”, one man living in the camp said. “They are put into the earth like animals, without even the dignity of a coffin.”

When asked what needs to be done, the camp president put forward two things: they need food and they need protection.

The ultimate solution to the displacement and instability must be political, and it is only when the root causes of conflict are properly addressed that the current suffering can truly be alleviated and avoided in the long-term. But in the meantime, for many of the thousands of people living at Kishusha camp, these two basic needs of food and protection are what will determine whether they live or die.

The international humanitarian community, starting with the UNHCR, must take responsibility for their role in supporting these individuals and ensure that no camp, official or unofficial, is forgotten. Displaced Congolese like Jacqueline cannot wait much longer.

Amendment note 13/2/13: the final sentence of the opening section (fourth paragraph) has been amended for greater clarity on the frequency of MSF visits and the health needs of the camps.

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