Decades of ongoing conflict and internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were aggravated in 2016 and 2017 with renewed violence in the Kivus and new conflicts in Kasai and Tanganyika. Chronic political instability, armed conflict and the cyclical nature of displacement in the DRC have left IDPs highly vulnerable and unable to achieve durable solutions. The UN activated a Level 3 emergency for the DRC in October 2017, raising the profile of the country whose humanitarian appeal continues to be underfunded. IDP figures in 2017 almost doubled from the previous year. The level 3 emergency alert was deactivated in April 2018, creating further uncertainty regarding the humanitarian response in the country.
Political instability in the early 1990s and the 1994 Rwandan genocide pushed the 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 levels of peace and stability, allowing for the return of many IDPs. However, many areas, particularly the eastern provinces, remain unstable, and the continued presence of numerous armed groups is an ongoing threat to the population. Local ethnic divisions used and abused by armed groups and the military alike, coupled with corruption and the illegal exploitation of mineral resources, mean that the process of peace building 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 a large proportion of local insurgencies and wider conflict in the country.
Political gridlock in the capital of Kinshasa has also served to foster insecurity. After more than 18 years in office, the refusal of president Kabila to step down after the end of his mandate and the failure of the election commission to organise elections in a timely manner are also said to have emboldened armed groups, particularly in the eastern provinces. More recently, the government has shown a willingness to hold elections, with 23 December 2018 chosen as a preliminary date. But the feasibility and fairness of this exercise remains to be seen, as are the effects that such elections would have on pre-existing conflict.
New displacements of hundreds of thousands of people have occurred on a regular basis over the last decade. Renewed fighting and new localised conflict in 2016 and 2017 in the Kivus, Kasai region and Tanganyika have led to a surge in displacement. About 2.2 million new displacements were recorded for 2017 at the end of which 4.5 million people were living in a situation of displacement, doubling figures of the previous year.
While conflict accounts for the vast majority of displacement cases, it is not the only driver of this phenomenon in the country. Others relate to low government capacity, pervasive poverty and inequality, and environmental degradation, all of which converge to create high levels of vulnerability to a range of natural hazards, in particular volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. Floods regularly displace large numbers of people, hitting communities that are already living in high-risk conditions with weak housing infrastructure, fragile subsistence livelihoods, and limited access to water, energy and social services.
Overall, 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 played a role in furthering displacement risk. Lack of long term funding for humanitarian and development assistance holds back the means to help curb chronic insecurity, which fuels the recurrence of major crises every few years. As the country has been in conflict for most of the past 25 years, the risk of displacement has increased rather than diminished.
In 2016 and again in 2017, the DRC topped the list of countries with the highest numbers of new conflict displacements globally. In 2017, it was the country with the second highest level of new displacements due to conflict in the world, and the 3rd highest overall stock figure due to conflict at the end of the year. North and South Kivu provinces have the most IDPs, and large numbers have also been displaced by inter-communal clashes in southern and central provinces such as Tanganyika, Kasai, Kasai-Oriental and Ituri. In October 2017, the UN activated the highest level of emergency (L3) for the provinces of South Kivu, Tanganyika and Kasai region. This designation was deactivated in April 2018.
Displacement is often short-term but occurs on multiple occasions, as IDPs seek to stay close to their areas of origin and maintain access to their livelihoods. A vast majority of IDPs in the DRC live outside camps, with relatives, members of the same ethnic groups and church communities often providing support. In some cases, IDPs have been found staying in makeshift shelters in the bush.
In addition, over time, shifting front lines have pushed some IDPs further away from their homes, making returns more difficult and putting them at greater risk of impoverishment and further displacement. IDPs have also found themselves having to move across borders into Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Angola, when they are unable to find safety in their own country. Porous borders and a lack of coordination between countries have generated circular cross-border displacement, with people being uprooted multiple times and having to seek protection in different cultural and social contexts. This phenomenon also shows that unresolved internal displacement generates refugee flows which could further destabilise neighbouring host countries, with possible knock-on effects on the geopolitics of the region.
Due to constant pendular displacement, 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 local commerce very difficult to maintain. In the long term, this situation serves to fuel a continuation of the cycle of displacement, as new tensions flare over scarce resources and between different ethnic groups, for which local customary law may offer limited guidance. Meanwhile the immediate consequences of this are dire: as many as 9.9 million people are food insecure and over two million children are threatened by acute malnutrition.
The country’s overstretched health and education sectors are in desperate need of support, including infrastructure rehabilitation. The use of schools as shelters in response to constant population movements has interrupted education, with one out of ten children in Kasai out of school. In 2017, 22 of the DRC’s 26 provinces were impacted by cholera outbreaks which affected over 44,000 people. It was the country’s worst cholera epidemic in 15 years.
With the resurgence of active conflict and inter-ethnic and communal clashes, IDPs and the population at large are also facing acute protection needs. As in other displacement contexts, indigenous groups and ethnic minorities in the DRC are particularly vulnerable. These include the Pygmies, who have been uprooted and displaced from their lands since the early 2000s and have very limited access to income and basic services, and literally no public voice.
Women as a whole also represent a vulnerable group, particularly with regards to gender-based violence. Precarious living conditions due to frequent displacement, the ubiquity of armed actors in daily life, lack of government control and prevailing gender norms contribute to a culture of impunity regarding sexual violence. In 2017, cases of gender-based violence were recorded in historically insecure regions in the East as well as in emerging crisis areas such as Kasai Central province.
Displaced children separated from their families are highly vulnerable, with many of them forced to join armed groups, as reported in North Kivu. Given that rape and sexual violence are used regularly as instruments of power, children are also at risk of suffering such abuse.
IDPs in camp settings 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 of funding raises concerns about the future of the ever-increasing number of IDPs.
The geography and size of the country and displacement patterns make it difficult to accurately identify IDP populations. No IDP registration system exists. Instead, figures are based on alerts communicated by humanitarian organisations and other informants present on the ground. A data coordinating body for the country, the OCHA-led Commission de Mouvement de la Population (Population Movement Commission), works to establish official numbers by verifying alerts and consolidating the numbers on a quarterly basis. However, many caseloads cannot be verified, usually due to access constraints. This poses particular problems when considering returns. The pendular nature of displacement and lack of access to some areas of origin make it difficult to assess the number and sustainability of returns. All of this means that obtaining accurate and up-to-date figures on the number of displaced in the DRC remains a challenging task.
|Displacement type||New Displacement (Flow)||IDPs (Stock)|
|Geographical disaggregation||Admin 2 or more||Admin 2 or more|
|Geographical coverage||All relevant areas covered||All relevant areas covered|
|Frequency of reporting||More than once a month||More than once a month|
|Disaggregation on sex||Partial||Partial|
|Disaggregation on age||Partial||Partial|
|Data triangulation||Some local triangulation||Some local triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||No|
|Data on returns||Partial||Partial|
|Data on local integration||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No|
IDMC’s displacement estimates are based on new displacements reported by UN agencies and NGOs working in affected regions, compiled by OCHA and verified by the Commission de Mouvement de Population (CMP). There has been a significant increase in new displacements from 2016 due to inter-communal violence in Kasai and Tanganyika, and clashes between armed groups and government forces primarily in North and South Kivu. However, the stock figure can be considered an overestimate as there is no comprehensive data available on returns.