Decades of ongoing conflict and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been displacing people since the early 1990s. Conflict and violence in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, in particular, have caused large-scale displacement in the past several years. Chronic instability and the cyclical nature of displacement in the country have left IDPs highly vulnerable and unable to achieve durable solutions.
In 2018, about 1.8 million new displacements were recorded, primarily in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Tanganyika and Kasai Central, but new conflict also occurred in the provinces of Ituri and Mai-Ndombe. After a two-year delay, presidential elections took place on December 30 with hopes that a resolution to the national political crisis may bring a reduction in tensions, conflict and subsequently, displacement.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
Political instability in the early 1990s and the Rwandan genocide in 1994 pushed DRC into full-scale civil war in 1996, and by the end of 2000 the country had around two million IDPs. The establishment of a transitional government in 2003 brought relative peace and stability, allowing many to return. Many areas remain unstable, however, particularly the eastern provinces, where the continued presence of numerous armed groups is an ongoing threat to the population.
Local ethnic divisions exploited by both armed groups and the military, coupled with corruption and the illegal extraction of minerals, mean the process of peacebuilding and reconciliation has been slow to non-existent. There is also competition for other natural resources, such as fishing grounds and arable land, which lies at the root of many local insurgencies and wider conflict in the country.
Political gridlock in the capital Kinshasa has also served to foster insecurity. The refusal of the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, to step down at the end of his last mandate after 18 years in office, and the electoral commission’s failure to organise timely elections were thought to have emboldened armed groups, particularly in the eastern provinces. A new president, Félix Tshisekedi, took office in January 2019, raising hopes for political change.
New displacements of hundreds of thousands of people have occurred on a regular basis over the last decade, but renewed fighting in the Kivus and new localised conflict in Kasai and Tanganyika in 2016 and 2017 led to a surge in population movements. About 2.2 million new displacements were recorded for 2017, and as of the end of the year 4.5 million were living as IDPs, double the figures for the previous year.
In 2018, conflict and violence continued at a similar level, although shifting geographically. Violence escalated in Ituri province in the first quarter of the year, and the last few weeks of 2018 were marked by an outbreak in intercommunal violence in Mai-Ndombe province, in the west of the country. Conflict continued in North and South Kivu and in Kasai Central province. About 1.8 million new displacements were recorded country-wide in 2018. Despite high levels of displacement, and prevailing insecurity, the total number of people living in displacement at the end of 2018 decreased from the previous year, to just over 3 million people. This decrease does not reflect an improvement in the situation, but rather a change in methodology in data collection on displacement in what is a very challenging environment.
Conflict accounts for the vast majority of displacement, but it is not the only driver of the phenomenon. Weak government capacity, pervasive poverty and inequality and environmental degradation converge to create high levels of vulnerability to a range of natural hazards, particularly volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. The latter regularly displace large numbers of people, hitting communities already living in poor housing conditions with fragile subsistence livelihoods and limited access to water, energy and social services.
Sporadic and inadequate levels of international assistance and a lack of strategic vision on the part of humanitarian and development partners in the country have also played a role in increasing displacement risk. The lack of long-term funding for assistance holds back the means to curb chronic insecurity, which fuels the recurrence of major crises every few years.
Where and how do people move?
DRC had the highest number of new displacements associated with conflict globally in 2016 and the second highest figure for 2017 and 2018. It also had the third-highest number of people living in displacement as of the end of the year. North and South Kivu have the most IDPs, but southern and central provinces such as Ituri, Kasai, Kasai-Oriental and Tanganyika also host significant numbers.
Displacement tends to be short-lived but is often repeated as IDPs try to stay close to their areas of origin and maintain access to their livelihoods. The vast majority take refuge with relatives or members of the same ethnic group, with church communities often providing support. Very few IDPs live in camps, but some have been found staying in makeshift shelters in the bush.
Over time, however, shifting frontlines have pushed some IDPs further from their homes, making their return more difficult and putting them at greater risk of impoverishment and further displacement. Unable to find safety in their own country, others have crossed borders into Angola, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Porous borders and a lack of coordination between countries have led to circular cross-border displacement, in which people are repeatedly uprooted and have to seek protection in unfamiliar cultural and social settings. This phenomenon also shows that unresolved internal displacement generates refugee flows, which could destabilise neighbouring host countries with possible knock-on effects on the region’s geopolitics.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Local governments and communities that host IDPs struggle to meet the needs of large numbers of additional inhabitants. Local economies collapse as fields, food stocks and markets are destroyed, making trade and commerce all but impossible to sustain. The immediate consequences are dire. As of August 2018, 23 per cent of the rural population, or 13.1 million people are estimated to be food insecure. Over time the situation also fuels the cycle of displacement, as new tensions flare between different ethnic groups over scarce resources, disputes for which local customary law may offer only limited guidance.
The country’s overstretched health and education sectors are in desperate need of support, including the repair and reconstruction of infrastructure. Twenty-two of DRC’s 26 provinces experienced cholera outbreaks in 2017, which affected more than 44,000 people and amounted to the country’s worst cholera epidemic in 15 years. Cholera continued to be a problem in 2018 and 2019, the worst affected areas being North and South Kivu.
The resurgence of conflict and inter-ethnic and communal clashes means IDPs and the broader population also face acute protection needs. Indigenous groups and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable, including the Pygmies, who have been uprooted and displaced from their land since the early 2000s. They have little if any access to income-generating opportunities and basic services, and no public voice.
Women are also a particularly vulnerable group, particularly in terms of gender-based violence (GBV). Precarious living conditions as a result of frequent displacement, the pervasive presence armed groups, lack of government control and prevailing gender norms contribute to a culture of impunity regarding sexual violence, which is widespread. Cases of GBV were recorded in eastern regions and emerging crisis areas such as Kasai Central province in 2017.
Displaced children separated from their families are highly vulnerable, and many have been forced to join armed groups, as reported in North Kivu. Given that rape and sexual violence are regularly used as instruments of power, children are also at risk of such abuse.
IDPs in camps can also be at risk. Provincial governments have sought to close camps, making humanitarian efforts more challenging. Five camps in North Kivu closed in 2016, and a general reduction in funding raises concerns about the future of DRC’s ever-increasing number of IDPs.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
DRC’s size, topography and complex displacement patterns make it difficult to accurately identify IDPs, and no formal national registration system exists. Instead, figures are based on alerts from humanitarian organisations and other informants present on the ground. The Population Movement Commission, which is led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), serves as a data coordinating body and works to establish official numbers by verifying alerts and consolidating numbers on a quarterly basis. In addition, IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) programme started collecting displacement data in 2018, surveying over 22,000 villages in 7 provinces (South Kivu, Tanganyika, Kasai Central, Kasai, Kasai Oriental, Lomami and Sankuru).
Many caseloads, however, cannot be verified, usually because of access restrictions. The pendular nature of displacement and lack of access to some areas of origin make it particularly difficult to assess the number and sustainability of returns. All things considered, compiling accurate and up-to-date figures on the number of IDPs in DRC remains challenging.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in DRC was derived from data from village-level assessments conducted by IOM DTM throughout 2018 in Kasai, Kasai Central, Kasai Oriental, Lomami, Sankuru, Tanganyika and South Kivu provinces. It is also based on IDMC’s analysis of data on camp populations in North Kivu, published by the camp coordination and camp management cluster, and data from ACAPS on displacement associated with violence in Mai- Ndombe. IDMC considers the figure to be a significant underestimate, because it does not include data about provinces highly affected by displacement but not yet covered by IOM DTM such as Ituri, Maniema and most of North Kivu.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is based on information on new arrivals in villages covered by IOM DTM, data published by ACAPS for Mai-Ndombe and population movement alerts for provinces covered by OCHA. This includes Haut Katanga, Haut Lomami, Ituri, Maniema, North Kivu and Tshopo. Both IOM DTM and OCHA also reported significant numbers of returns in 2018.
IDMC categorises as partial solutions people who returned to their former homes and no longer have shelter as their primary humanitarian need but who still have other needs related to their displacement.