Conflict and violence have been triggering displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the early 1990s. The eastern provinces of North and South Kivu have been particularly affected in recent years. Chronic instability and the cyclical nature of displacement have left IDPs highly vulnerable and unable to achieve durable solutions.
Nearly 1.7 million new displacements were recorded in 2019, primarily in North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri. Conflict also continued in the provinces of Haut-Katanga, Lualaba, Maï-ndombe, Maniema, Tanganyika, and Tshopo. Presidential elections took place in December 2018 after a two-year delay, and Félix Tshisekedi was declared the winner in January 2019, marking the first peaceful transition of power since DRC became independent in 1960. There are hopes that the resolution of the country’s political crisis may also bring about a reduction in conflict, violence and displacement.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
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 also served to foster insecurity. The refusal of the country’s former 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.
About 2.2 million new displacements were recorded in 2017, and 4.5 million people were living as IDPs as of the end of the year, double the figures for 2016.
Conflict and violence continued at a similar level in 2018, but it shifted 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 countrywide in 2018. Despite high levels of displacement and prevailing insecurity, the number of people living in displacement at the end of 2018 decreased from the previous year to just over three million. This did 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.
DRC was the country most affected by internal displacement in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019. Ethnic tensions, local grievances and chronic poverty are among the major drivers of the phenomenon, and the political situation remains tense despite the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history in January. The new government inherited a series of challenges, not least the activities of more than 100 armed groups in the east and ongoing conflict in other areas. Clashes between armed groups and the military forces continued in North Kivu and South Kivu, and intercommunal violence escalated in Ituri and South Kivu.
Weak government capacity, poverty, inequality and environmental degradation also converge to make people highly vulnerable 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.
Heavy rains and flooding affected 12 of DRC’s 26 provinces between October and December 2019. The country as a whole recorded 233,000 new disaster displacements, the highest ever figure. Floods triggered 137,000 in Nord-Ubangui and Sud-Ubangui provinces, which border the Central African Republic (CAR), and Tshopo province was also badly affected. Around 168,000 people in DRC were thought to be living in displacement as a result of disasters as of the end of the year.
Inconsistent 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.
DRC had the highest number of new conflict displacements globally in 2016 and the second highest figure for 2017, 2018 and 2019. Nearly 1.7 million were reported in 2019, compared with more than 1.8 million in 2018 and 2.2 million in 2017.
Clashes between the military and armed groups in North Kivu triggered 520,000 new displacements, primarily in Lubero and Rutshuru territories, and an upsurge in intercommunal violence between the Hema and Lendu communities triggered 453,000 in Ituri. There was also an escalation of conflict between armed groups and intercommunal violence in South Kivu, where 401,000 displacements were recorded, mainly in Mwenga and Fizi territories. Most of the people displaced were women and children.
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, and church communities often provide 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.
Around 5.5 million people were living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence as of the end of 2019, and around 15.6 million were expected to need humanitarian assistance in 2020.
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 consequences are dire. Twenty-six per cent of DRC’s rural population, or 15.9 million people, were thought to be acutely food insecure as of August 2019. Over time the situation also fuels the displacement cycle, 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 country also had to deal with its second largest Ebola outbreak and a measles outbreak in 2019, the three diseases between them killing thousands of people.
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.
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.
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.
IOM’s displacement tracking matrix (DTM) also started collecting displacement data in 2018, surveying more than 22,000 villages in seven provinces - Kasai, Kasai Central, Kasai Oriental, Lomami, Sankuru, South Kivu and Tanganyika. It collected information on eight territories across Ituri, North Kivu and Tanganyika in 2019.
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.