UNHCR’s Responses to the Congolese Migration Crisis

Cover image courtesy of UNHCR.

–by Stephanie Polito–


For the last three decades, violence and instability have forced millions of people from the Democratic Republic of Congo to flee their homes and seek protection in other parts of the country and across international borders. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, has worked in the Congo and host countries to establish and maintain the infrastructure to receive the Congolese migrants and ensure their human rights and protection, though many needs still go unmet. By incorporating the refugee voice into program design, UNHCR could better meet the needs of the displaced. This critical analysis will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of UNHCR’s responses over the years.

Critical Analysis

The dire situation that has plagued the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since its independence in 1960 has spurred the forced migration of millions of refugees. Some have journeyed into other parts of the country while other have crossed international borders into the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda where they have been stuck in limbo awaiting resettlement to a third country and hoping for an end to the violence in their country so that they can return home.[1] Researcher Carlos Sluzki said of the Congolese refugees while visiting a refugee camp in Rwanda,

“The dust behind our vehicle soon erased the eerie vision of a labyrinth in the middle of nowhere and of people suspended in time, prisoners of their fate while blessed to be alive, hoping for a better life for their children, waiting not knowing very well for what, dreaming of returning home while the world they knew disintegrated, while the world we know continues to offer them little acts of kindness and enormous acts of indifference.”[2]

A refugee camp in Rwanda. Image courtesy of Oxfam.

Sluzki’s visit to the refugee camp occurred in 2006. Little has changed for the Congolese since then in spite of the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, to find durable solutions for those fleeing violence and seeking protection. Many Congolese find themselves in a protracted refugee situation, which means, “[A situation i]n which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance.”[3]

Historical context

Gaining independence on June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo is comprised of an area of 2,345,000 km2 bordered by Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Congo. Between 1885 and 1908, the DRC was known as the Independent State of Congo considered the private property of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. In 1908, Belgium inherited the land and colonized the country. DRC finally gained independence from Belgium in 1960.[4]

Following independence, DRC, known at the time as Zaire, has seen recurrent civil wars and instability. During the first five years of independence, two provinces tried to secede from the new state while rebel forces added to the chaos in the eastern part of the country. Internal displacement was a result of this instability and violence. Ultimately, peace returned to the country, at least for a time, after the government was overthrown by a military coup in 1965.[5]

Internal migration during this time is spurred by depressed economic situation. Unemployment was at 89%, and the average Congolese had an income of less than 1 USD per day. Due to these harsh economic conditions, a mass exodus moved from rural to urban areas. Urban centers such as Kinshasa did not have appropriate infrastructure to receive the increased population, therefore, shanty-towns emerged.[6]

Poor economic conditions exacerbated by government corruption throughout the 1980’s and 90’s led to almost eight years of armed conflict from 1996 to 2003.[7]  The Dutch Institute for Southern Africa (NiZA) describes the government during this time as “the State against the people.” NiZA continues,

Uniformed officers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo armed with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade). Image courtesy of World Policy Institute.


“A large part of the failure of the transition can be attributed to bad governance and to the corruption of the current political class in the DRC. Historically, the DRC is collapsing under the burden of some form of ‘governmentality’ which represents the main obstacle to the reconstruction of the country and to the adequate management of the humanitarian crisis confronting it. At all levels of the State apparatus, public function is regarded as a means to acquire personal wealth and privileges.”[8]

These two wars, known as the First and Second Congo Wars killed some five million people. Most of these deaths are attributed to disease and malnutrition often linked to displacement. At the height of the conflict of the Second Congo War, there were three million Congolese internally displaced persons (IDPs) in addition to the 400,000 who fled to neighboring countries as refugees.[9] By 2015, this number had grown to 1.2 million Congolese refugees throughout Africa and 2.8 million internally displaced.[10] As of June 2018, 781, 697 Congolese refugees are residing in African countries with 112,401 of those fleeing just between January and June 2018.[11]

UNHCR Response

While other UN agencies focus on other aspects of international law such as human rights and peacekeeping, the UN Refugee Agency has focused their attention on durable solutions for the Congolese over the years. According to a UNHCR report from 2000,

“During 1999, some 15,350 asylum applications lodged by citizens from the DRC were recorded in 78 asylum countries worldwide. In total, some 7,140 asylum-seekers were granted refugee status and 3,870 applications were rejected resulting in a total recognition rate of 66 per cent. UNHCR Offices received some 2,770 asylum applications lodged by citizens from the DRC. Some 920 applications were accepted under the UNHCR mandate, whereas 330 were rejected, resulting in an overall recognition rate of 74 per cent. The global recognition rate of asylum-seekers from the DRC by Governments was slightly lower (63 per cent). In Africa, 92 per cent of all substantive adjudication decisions pertaining to asylum seekers from the DRC during 1999 (6,240) were positive.”[12]

Continuing on into the mid-2000’s (and through today), UNHCR provides protection services including food, shelter, and education to Congolese refugees in second countries.

As of 2007, UNHCR was also providing services to Congolese internally displaced persons and returnees. Total number of returnees was estimated at 109,000 in 2006. UNHCR’s involvement with IDPs had been limited to community-based interventions in areas where returnees were present, but, beginning in 2006, UNHCR began a cluster approach which extended enhanced services to IDPs in regard to protection and early recovery especially in the eastern part of the country.

Congolese refugee Annie Kabeja, 34, holds her baby at the Nkamira transit centre for refugees in western Rwanda Saturday, May 5, 2012. Image courtesy of AP Photo, Siegfried Modola.

While international conflicts ceased in 2003, the violence in some areas did not end. In response to the continued violence in the East, UNHCR collaborated with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to establish a mechanism to support newly displaced groups not only with protection services but also child protection and gender-based violence offenses. These cluster operations positioned UNHCR as the agency that protected refugees and IDPs along with other groups threatened by violence and human rights violations.[14]In 2007, UNHCR has 43 international and 154 national staff at the DRC field offices. The budget consisted of $11.5 million for refugees, $26.5 million for the reintegration of returnees, and $15.3 million for IDPs. Security improvements and support from UNHCR had allowed the return of almost two million IDPs to their homes, but some areas of the country were still experiencing abuses including “extortion, rape, hostage-taking, killings, looting of livestock, crops and food supplies, child recruitment, and destruction of property.”[13]

As illustrated in the Real time evaluation of UNHCR’s IDP operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo,

“UNHCR’s experience in the DRC has also highlighted that while UNHCR’s operational focus is on the protection of IDPs and refugees, its cluster leadership may require it to steer the humanitarian response on a broader range of protection issues. The evaluation team saw an example of this during a Protection Cluster meeting in Kinshasa, when discussions focused on the potential protection needs of Congolese migrant workers who were being summarily deported in large groups from Angola. While these individuals would not normally come within UNHCR’s mandate or under its enhanced responsibilities for IDPs, UNHCR’s role as cluster lead in such circumstances may require it to take the lead in assessing protection needs, and if required, engaging in advocacy as cluster lead and ensuring a response from cluster partners with the appropriate mandate and expertise.”[15]

The evaluation team found that UNHCR’s position as cluster leader was strategic and found to address a gap in protection services within DRC. With this collaboration and improving security in most of the country allowed for returnees to continue. Refugees from neighboring countries experiencing instability and violence fled to parts of DRC even while the number of Congolese IDPs grew due to the volatile situation in the East.

Graph: Monthly trend of displacement in last 18 months. One trend line shows the number displaced persons over July 2016 to December 2017; the other trend line shows returnees over the same time period. The number if returnees peaked in March of 2017 and was much higher than the number of displaced persons.[16]

Although some Congolese are returning, the violence in the East does not make repatriation a viable solution for UNHCR-sponsored solutions. Additionally, opportunities for integration in second countries is very limited. Even though all of the host countries have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, many of these countries have imposed restrictions on Congolese refugees, including: the right to work, education, freedom of movement, and access to citizenship. In countries without restrictions, life is still quite difficult due to high rates of unemployment and poverty in the host countries.[17]

Resettlement is currently the only durable solution for Congolese refugees due to the lack of opportunities for local integration and the danger posed by on-going conflict in DRC. Many Congolese refugees have lived in exile, either in camps or other insufficient dwellings, since 1997. In an article released by UNHCR, the agency shares,

“It is hoped that resettlement will also be a contributing factor to strengthening and widening the protection environment for remaining refugees as well as advancing other durable solutions in countries of asylum. Resettlement of larger numbers of Congolese refugees will serve as a visible sign of solidarity and burden sharing with authorities in host countries.”[18]

Even with an added emphasis on resettlement, it is only possible for UNHCR to resettle a mere fraction of the total number of Congolese refugees currently residing outside their home countries, not to mention ensure the protection of IDPs still in DRC. Increased violence over the last few years means that almost five million Congolese are internally or externally displaced. Nevertheless, funding for the DRC is the lowest it has been in a decade.[19]


The concept of Western helpers began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before the country even had that name. A history of colonization and exploitation has plagued the country with forced ideals, borders, and corruption. This has led to a struggle for power and control in the country. The UNHCR along with other UN agencies have made some progress in helping portions of the population, but peace doesn’t seem to last for long in DRC.

The UN continues to advocate for increased resettlement in third countries, though resettlement seems to be insufficient. Even under the 2012-2017 resettlement scheme, only 50,000 of five million displaced were expected to be resettled.[20] This was before the Trump administration halted the refugee program in 2017 and increased vetting procedures slowing down the process all over the world.

Some are calling for an overhaul of the UN refugee program. Oxford professor Paul Collier says of today’s refugees, “[they are] overwhelmingly fleeing mass disorder rather than state persecution. Refugees need a haven that is proximate, so that it is easy to reach and from which it is easy to return once a conflict ends.”[21]

Resettling a few thousand refugees does bring about change (albeit, not always positive) in the refugees’ lives, but millions of others are left in limbo. The UN has also called for unconventional resettlement of refugees through other immigration methods, such as humanitarian, employment, and family reunification visas.

Why does the UNHCR insist on resettling these few thousand refugees when the root of the problem lies in local governance and continued power struggles? After thirty years of armed conflicts, how should the international community respond to Congolese forced migration? The Center for Immigration Studies’ Nayla Rush offers an interesting answer, “The West should stop using resettlement as a conscience alleviator.”[22]

In order for lasting change to occur in DRC, the response must be three-fold. Firstly, the government of DRC must acknowledge the severity of the crisis and commit to protecting its population. UNHCR should leverage its relationships with donor governments to apply pressure on the DRC government to fulfill its responsibilities towards its people.[23]

Secondly, UNHCR should implement cash transfer programming for refugees and IDPs instead of providing housing in camps and basic necessities. This would provide the Congolese with agency over their own lives. Cash transfers help to restore the balance of power between the helpers and the helped.[24]

Thirdly, awareness is needed among international donors as to the protracted state of the Congolese refugee crisis. UNHCR has been on the receiving end of funding fatigue in regards to their work in DRC. Targeted funding is needed to provide flexible, short-term funding for emergencies along with funding for areas of protracted crisis to transition to recovery. Client feedback should be considered and integrated into donor-funded programming in order to truly meet the needs, as determined by the those actually in need, of those seeking protection.[25]


During the 58-year history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country has experienced exploitation, economic turmoil, and almost constant civil war. The UNHCR has done much good in the country, but there is still more that the UN Refugee Agency could do that would promote the voice of the Congolese and empower them to live independent lives.

The agency has made it a practice to hire local staff, yet expatriate staff remain in positions of greater influence. This structure perpetuates the paternalistic imbalance of power. Additionally, steps must be taken to promote the refugee’s voice within UNHCR programming. From financial autonomy to program design, refugees know how their needs are best met. The agency need only take the time to listen and incorporate the refugee’s feedback.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.



Primary sources

“Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Democratic Republic of Congo.” UNHCR. May 2000. http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6a6574.pdf. 23 August 2018.

“Congolese Refugees: A protracted situation.” UNHCR. 2013. http://www.unhcr.org/558c0e039.pdf. 24 August 2018.

“Democratic Republic of Congo Regional Office.” UNHCR. http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/4874?y=2018#year. 23 August 2018.

“The Democratic Republic of Congo Situation. UNHCR. June 2018. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/65214.pdf. 23 August 2018.

Scholarly journals

Bourgeouis, Claire and Khassim Diagne. “Real time evaluation of UNHCR’s IDP operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service and the IDP Advisory Team. September 2007. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/research/evalreports/46ea97fe2/real-time-evaluation-unhcrs-idp-operation-democratic-republic-congo.html. 23 August 2018.

Lamarche, Alexandra. “Leaving Millions Behind: The harmful consequences of donor fatigue in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Refugees International. August 2018. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/DRC%2BReport%2B2018%2B-%2B8.22.2018%2B-%2B1217%2Bam.pdf. 25 August 2018.

Ngoie Tshibambe, Germain, Ph.D. and Vwakyanakazi Mukohya. “Country Paper: The Democratic Republic of Congo.” Université de Lubumbashi/Katanga. https://www.imi.ox.ac.uk/files/completed-projects/drc-country-paper-eng-translation.pdf. 20 August 2018.

Paddon, Emily and Guillaume Lacaille. “Forced Migration Policy Briefing 8: Stabilising the Congo.” Refugee Studies Centre. December 2011. https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files-1/pb8-stabilising-congo-2011.pdf. 22 August 2018.

Sluzki, Carlos. “Short Term Heaven, Long Term Limbo: A visit to a UNHCR refugee camp in Rwanda,” Global Studies Review. 2006. http://mars.gmu.edu/bitstream/handle/1920/522/sluzki_2006_short_term_heaven_long_term_limbo.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y. 20 August 2018.

Secondary sources

“Congolese (DRC) Refugees.” European Resettlement Network. 2013. https://www.resettlement.eu/page/congolese-drc-refugees. 23 August 2018.

“DRC refugees and the limits of durable solutions.” IRIN News. 9 July 2014. http://www.irinnews.org/report/100323/drc-refugees-and-limits-durable-solutions. 24 August 2018.

Flahaux, Marie-Laurence and Bruno Schoumaker. “Democratic Republic of the Congo: A Migration History Marked by Crises and Restrictions.” Migration Policy Institute. 20 April 2016. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/democratic-republic-congo-migration-history-marked-crises-and-restrictions. 22 August 2018.


[1] Dr. Germain Ngoie Tshibambe and Vwakyanakazi Mukohya, ‘Country Paper: The Democratic Republic of Congo’, Université de Lubumbashi/Katanga, 25.

[2] Carlos Sluzki, ‘Short Term Heaven, Long Term Limbo: A visit to a UNHCR refugee camp in Rwanda’, Global Studies Review: 2006, 4.

[3] Nayla Rush, ‘UN Report Shows Refugee System Needs Changes: Will the Trump administration change an archaic process?’, Center for Immigration Studies (January 2017).

[4] Dr. Germain Ngoie Tshibambe and Vwakyanakazi Mukohya, ‘Country Paper: The Democratic Republic of Congo’, 4-5.

[5] Dr. Germain Ngoie Tshibambe and Vwakyanakazi Mukohya, ‘Country Paper: The Democratic Republic of Congo’, 6.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Emily Paddon and Guillaume Lacaille, ‘Forced Migration Policy Briefing 8: Stabilising the Congo’, Refugee Studies Centre: December 2011, 5.

[10] Marie-Laurence Flahaux and Bruno Schoumaker, ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo: A Migration History Marked by Crises and Restrictions’, Migration Policy Institute.

[11] ‘The Democratic Republic of Congo Situation’, UNHCR (June 2018).

[12] ‘Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Democratic Republic of Congo’, UNHCR (May 2000), 28.

[13] Claire Bourgeouis and Khassim Diagne, ‘Real time evaluation of UNHCR’s IDP operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service and the IDP Advisory Team (September 2007), 7.

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Claire Bourgeouis and Khassim Diagne, ‘Real time evaluation of UNHCR’s IDP operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service and the IDP Advisory Team (September 2007), 11.

[16] ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo Regional Office’, UNHCR.


[17] ‘Congolese (DRC) Refugees’, European Resettlement Network (2013).

[18] ‘Congolese refugees: A protracted situation’, UNHCR (2013), 3.

[19] Alexandra Lamarche, ‘Leaving Millions Behind’, Refugees International (August 2018), 7.

[20] ‘DRC refugees and the limits of durable solutions’, IRIN News (9 July 2014).

[21] Nayla Rush, ‘UN Report Shows Refugee System Needs Changes: Will the Trump administration change an archaic process?’, Center for Immigration Studies.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Alexandra Lamarche, ‘Leaving Millions Behind’, Refugees International (August 2018), 5.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 6.

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