As many Muslims celebrated EID a few days ago, many Iraqi IDPs question what there is to celebrate. More from this AlJazeera video below.
Originally from IRIN by Kristy Siegfried
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 800 migrants have died trying to make the treacherous crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the year.
Last week alone, the bodies of 29 migrants were found in the packed hold of a fishing boat where they are thought to have been overcome by engine fumes. According to survivor accounts, 60 others who tried to escape from the suffocating hold were stabbed and thrown overboard by five fellow passengers. A day earlier, the Italian navy rescued 12 people after their rubber dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya. Another 109 who were on the boat are missing.
An unknown number of other migrants who attempt the journey disappear without a trace, their bodies presumably claimed by the sea, leaving families back home desperate for news of their loved ones that never comes.
Yafet Gibe, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan, last heard from his wife, Brikti, who was trying to reach Europe with their 20-month-old daughter, over a month ago. She called him from Libya, the departure point for most migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, on 20 June and told him that she would be boarding a boat on 28 June. Both a friend of Gibe’s based in Libya and the smuggler who had charged US$1,600 for the journey from Sudan to Libya and another $1,700 for the Mediterranean crossing, confirmed that Brikti and her child left on the boat as planned.
But Gibe, who had planned to join his wife in Europe with their other child at a later stage, has not heard from her since and he learned that about 250 other migrants and asylum seekers travelling on the same boat have also failed to make contact with their families. The smuggler insists that they are all in an Italian prison, but as the weeks pass with no word from any of them, this seems increasingly unlikely.
“Now I’m in Sudan and there’s no one that can help me,” Gibe told IRIN over the phone from Khartoum. “Some of my friends in Europe have contacted the Red Cross and they’re checking the names of those arriving in Italy, but there’s no news.”
No system for identifying dead migrants
Currently, Europe has no centralized system for identifying the bodies of migrants, who often travel without documentation, nor for informing their families in origin countries. Where there is no dead body available to collect DNA samples and other identifying data, the task of helping families to trace missing relatives is even harder. Now there is mounting pressure from migrant and human rights advocates who argue that migrants’ families have a right to know the fate of missing relatives and European governments should be doing more to help them.
He and his co-author Iosif Kovras from Queen’s University, Belfast argue that “there is a humanitarian imperative and a moral and legal responsibility” to attempt to identify the bodies of dead migrants, inform their relatives and treat their bodies with dignity. However, based on research Kovras conducted on the Greek island of Lesbos, this rarely happens. He found “a gray zone where no authority assumed responsibility” for dealing with the bodies of migrants retrieved by the island’s coast guard. Nor is there any national or EU budget allocated for their burial. The result is that “unidentified migrants are hastily buried in unmarked graves” making it impossible for families to locate their remains.
“Gathering data from bodies is crucial where there is a body, but clearly a significant fraction of bodies are at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and will never be found,” said Robins, adding that there are still ways of reconstructing who was on a boat.
Interviewing shipwreck survivors
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) interviews survivors of shipwrecks and other disasters at sea who are brought to Italian ports in an effort to compile a list of migrants whose bodies were lost or dumped at sea. The list is then passed on to the Italian authorities.
“What happens in practice is that as soon as a new shipwreck is reported, we’re immediately called by the families. We would then put them in touch with someone who was on the boat to determine if their relative was there,” explained Simona Moscarelli, a migration law expert with IOM in Rome. “In some cases, we’ve also accompanied migrants’ relatives to the police so they can report the missing.”
The shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 350 mainly Eritrean asylum seekers off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 shocked the world and provided the impetus for the Italian navy’s search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which has rescued tens of thousands of migrants since it launched. The incident was unusual in that it occurred so close to shore that divers were able to retrieve the bodies. However nine months later, more than half of those bodies remain unidentified and the families of those that have been identified are yet to be officially notified, according to the Italian Red Cross.
Local authorities have taken DNA samples from all of the bodies, but without comparison samples from close relatives (known as ante-mortem data) that would allow a match to be made, the samples have little value. The 50 percent of the bodies that have been identified were mainly as a result of linking up relatives (who called organizations like the Red Cross and IOM in the days following the tragedy) with survivors who could confirm whether or not their family members were on the boat.
Both the Red Cross and IOM have a presence in Eritrea and potentially could collect DNA samples from relatives, but according to Lourdes Penados, regional forensic advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not many of the immediate family in Eritrea have made contact and asking them to present themselves for DNA collection presents considerable diplomatic and security challenges in a country where emigrating without the permission of the state is forbidden and severely punished.
Lack of centralized databases
ICRC hosted a conference in November 2013 on the issue of how Europe’s Mediterranean countries could better manage and identify dead migrants.
“We found that the problems are similar in most of these countries,” Penados told IRIN. “There’s a lack of databases for unidentified bodies and a lack of communication between institutions at the national and regional levels.”
A number of recommendations came out of the conference, including that there be standardized practices for collecting and managing information on dead migrants and that the data be recorded in centralized databases accessible to all relevant institutions. However, Penados said progress on implementing the recommendations had so far been very slow despite the ICRC’s efforts to lobby the European Union (EU) on the issue.
“It’s a regional issue so the EU has to get involved and also allocate resources for this centralization to happen,” she said.
One of the major impediments remains the lack of any mechanism to link post-mortem data from European countries where dead migrants are found with ante-mortem data from their countries of origin all over the world.
“It’s potentially a hugely complicated logistical problem,” admitted Robins, who nevertheless argued that with sufficient political will, the obstacles could be overcome.
Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) agreed that tracing dead migrants back to their families in various origin countries would take “a sizeable effort” but that similarly complex efforts to identify the dead in the wake of natural disasters and conflicts had yielded results.
“If you go back to the  tsunami in Thailand, you had about 8,500 victims, among them many tourists from all over the globe. So you had to find the family members and get the DNA references and that was done. Interpol and national police forces cooperated to ask family members for DNA samples.
“So it can be done, but it takes a mechanism to coordinate these things and you need money.”
Last year, ICMP and IOM signed a cooperation agreement that aims to draw on ICMP’s long experience in using DNA testing to trace the missing and its sizeable database of reference and victim profiles and align this with IOM’s presence in origin countries where it could collect missing person information and DNA samples. However, concrete programmes have yet to be put in place and there is widespread agreement that leadership and funding needs to come from the EU.
“It involves EU member states and EU border protection systems,” pointed out Klesier. “It needs to be addressed at an EU-wide level and in the external relations of the EU as well.”
What do you think can be done for the families of the missing migrants? Are there any other measures that can prevent the deaths at sea every year? Do let us know your thoughts!
Accessed from the Telegraph. By Robert Tait
Human rights activists say Israel should be ashamed of its treatment of asylum seekers at Holot, a holding facility for ‘infiltrators’ deep in the Negev desert
The men behind the forbidding barbed-wire topped fence had no doubts about their status.
“This is a jail. We are prisoners here,” said Tumizgie Okebamrime, standing with a group of fellow African refugees, all with arms raised and interlocked in symbolic handcuff gestures.
He was speaking from inside the grounds of Holot, a detention centre for illegal migrants in Israel’s Negev desert which the country’s authorities describe as “open”.
But Mr Okerbamrime, an asylum-seeker from Eritrea, described the isolated encampment in different terms. “Inside we have police, security guards and immigration,” he said. “I came to Israel because I thought it was a democratic country. I would never have come here if I had known it was like this.”
Yards away, around 1,000 protesters were staging a demonstration, holding placards and chanting slogans in English and Hebrew, including: “Israel, Feel ashamed! Remember your history! You were refugees too.”
Protesters staging a demostration in front of the Holot detention centre (Robert Tait)
Holot – a wilderness of prefabricated huts and fenced-in compounds close to the Egyptian frontier – has become the focal point of Israel’s treatment of roughly 50,000 African refugees, whom the government considers to be illegal economic migrants.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, sees the refugees – whom he calls “infiltrators” – as a threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state. Ignoring criticism from the UN High Commission for Refugees, his government has refused to consider all but a handful of asylum requests – even though most have escaped war-torn regions and authoritarian dictatorships.
The refugees, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan and including Christians as well as Muslims, began migrating into Israel from Egypt in 2006 before the Israeli authorities completed a long border fence nearly two years ago to stem the tide.
Now they say Israel is using the threat of Holot, together with cash inducements of £2,100, to pressure them into “voluntarily” returning home – where most fear their lives would be in danger – or leaving for a third country.
The centre was opened in December – supposedly as a compromise – after the Israeli high court struck down a law allowing illegal immigrants to be jailed without trial for three years.
Instead, the government added an amendment that reduced jail terms to one year but enabled migrants to be housed indefinitely in an”open” facility.
The high court began fresh hearings this week after a coalition of Israeli human rights groups brought a petition challenging the new policy’s legality, arguing that is is even more draconian than the original law.
Those in Holot – whose numbers have climbed in recent weeks to 1,500 men, housed 10 to a room – say conditions are far from open and in many ways worse than prison.
While they are supposedly free to leave, stringent rules requiring them to register three times a day, together with the centre’s remote location, render that impractical. Failing to register twice is considered a criminal offence, likely to result in a jail term.
“It’s called open but it doesn’t feel open,” said Angusam Hadish, 28, a former political prisoner in Eritrea who spent nearly two years in the nearby Saharonim prison after being arrested on entering Israel from Egypt. “In Saharonim you knew it was closed and had no hope of getting out. Here they say it’s open but when you go from place to place, there’s one guard after another telling you to go back.”
“There are no basic facilities like food and clothing. The worst thing is the lack of health care. If someone becomes sick, they just give them a yellow medicine. There is absolutely nothing to do.”
Worse still, perhaps, is the isolation. Located in open scrub land next to a foul-smelling chicken breeding plant, Holot feels far from civilisation. The stillness of the surroundings is broken only by the frequent over-flights of Hercules planes and Apache helicopters from nearby military bases.
Beersheba, the nearest town, is 60 miles away. Banned from working and with just £82 “pocket money” a month to live on, few can spare the bus fare to go. Those who can fear not being back before the centre’s 10.30pm closing time. Most spend the day sleeping, talking or taking occasional walks outside.
Meanwhile, buses arrive daily from Tel Aviv and elsewhere carrying refugees who have been summonsed to report to Holot after their visas expired.
With plans to extend its capacity to 9,000, the government boasts that its tactics are working, with the number of departing refugees rising steeply . Gidon Saar, the Israeli interior minister, last week said nearly 4,000 asylum seekers had left Israel since the start of the year, compared to just 63 in November, the month before Holot opened.
Dozens have agreed to go to Uganda, according to Israeli media reports, amid conflicting accounts about whether the two countries have reached a formal repatriation deal. Some have also been sent to Rwanda, Haaretz reported on Friday.
Sitting on a bench at the gates of Holot , Emmanual Abraha, whose 16-month-old son lives with his estranged wife in the Israeli town of Netanya, said the government’s policy left him with nowhere to turn. “I have no future in Israel,” admitted Mr Araba, 35, who fled to Eritrea to escape indefinite army conscription. “I cannot return to Eritrea unless there is democracy there. If I go to Uganda, I leave my son without a father. I can see myself being stuck here for years.”
What do you think of this latest crack down on asylum seekers in Israel? Is the latest crackdown reflective of a global trend or it specific to this case. Do let us know your thoughts!
French police dismantle three camps housing around 650 migrants
French riot police have started evacuating three campsites housing hundreds of immigrants in the northern port town of Calais, days after the anti-immigrant National Front party won over the ruling Socialists in a European election.
Wednesday’s evictions, denounced by local rights organisations, had been announced by a local government prefect a week earlier on the grounds that the makeshift camps posed problems for public health and safety.
“This is not a new issue for the French government. People have been coming to Calais for years now to try to get to the UK,” said Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from the scene.
“The problem is, under the EU law, Dublin Convention, people must seek asylum where they first land. For many of these people, that is Italy. By the time they reach Calais they pass maybe four to five countries. The French government is saying that other countries in Europe should share the burden.”
Calais has for years attracted floods of immigrants who flee poverty or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, many of them hoping to cross the narrow sea channel to Britain by ferry or the sub-sea train tunnel.
“This is sad, and it changes nothing,” said Jalal, an Iraqi in his 20s who watched as police moved in. “I’ll move my tent somewhere else … but I am staying put (in Calais). What else can I do. I will try again to make the crossing. I did not come here just to give up now.”
Many of the estimated 600-800 immigrants living in the three camps had moved out before the well-publicised evacuation ordered by Denis Robin, prefect for the Pas-de-Calais region.
Pas-de-Calais lies in north-west France where the National Front won 34 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, one of its best tallies and a tripling of its score from the 2009 EU election.
The FN has long campaigned for a dramatic reduction in immigration and opposes the “Schengen” borderless zone at the heart of the 28-member European Union.
What are your thoughts on these expulsions? Do you think the FN party will increase these anti-immigrant actions on other “public health and safety” grounds? Do let us know our thoughts!
Following up from our earlier posting on the closing of urban refugee registration centers in Kenya is a relevant posting on the harassment of ethnic Somalis in the nation’s capital as a result of an ongoing operation dubbed Usalama Watch.
11th April 2014
Thousands of ethnic Somalis have been arrested and detained in an ongoing security operation dubbed Usalama Watch mainly in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi often known as “Little Mogadishu” because of its predominantly Somali population. Usalama means security in Swahili.
On 11 April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement: “Kenyan police and other security agencies should stop arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion, and other abuses against Somalis during security operations.” Earlier, HRW noted that the directive to make refugees in urban areas return to camps is in violation of a High Court ruling.
On 9 April, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku told a press conference in Nairobi that some 3,000 people had been detained in the security operation, with 82 illegal migrants being deported to Mogadishu. The deportees were accompanied to Mogadishu by the Somali ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur Ameriko, who told IRIN that the deportees had chosen to return home to Somalia.
But according to HRW, “the government should also halt summary deportations and ensure that any undocumented Somalis are given the opportunity to file asylum claims.”
On 7 April, Ole Lenku told his Somali counterpart Abdullahi Godah in a meeting in Nairobi that all undocumented Somali refugees arrested in the operation will be deported.
Among those detained are refugees who have been returned to Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya.
In late March, Ole Lenku ordered all refugees residing outside the designated refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab to return to their respective camps with immediate effect.
“There are no other designated refugee camps outside these areas. Any refugee found flouting this directive will be dealt with in accordance with the law. Consequently, all refugee registration centres in urban areas – Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, Isiolo and Nakuru – are hereby closed,” he stated.
Kenya hosts some 550,980 refugees and asylum seekers, among them 50,800 living in Nairobi, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most of the refugees and asylum seekers are from Somalia.
In an interview with IRIN, UNHCR Kenya spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera said the agency is in discussion with the government to access those arrested.
Nyabera also reiterated that returns to Somalia should be voluntary. “People who are definitely seeking asylum in Kenya, who are refugees in Kenya – we agreed during the tripartite agreement reached in November that their return should be voluntary. So all we can do is to keep engaging the government – which we are doing consistently.”
UNHCR had in an earlier press statement urged “law enforcement agencies to uphold the rights of all those arrested and to treat them in a humane and non-discriminatory manner.”
The statement added that UNHCR had “sought access for itself and its partners to the detained refugees and asylum-seekers. This access will allow UNHCR to properly identify refugees, asylum-seekers and others of concern. It will also allow the agency to provide assistance to the detainees and obtain their release where appropriate.”
According to Yusuf Hassan, member of parliament for Kamukunji constituency within Eastleigh, the comparison of the area to Mogadishu is unjustified as it implies it is an outpost of the Somali republic and not part of Kenya. This negative perception could be part of the reason Somalis feel unfairly targeted.
“We support any operation that will weed out all kinds of criminals but what we are against is the nature of the operation. The government needs to adopt smart policing, intelligence gathering and fighting corruption within the police force [rather] than targeting [a] specific community,” Ahmedkadar Ali, a Somali Kenyan blogger, told IRIN.
“Somalis have been the scapegoat for police failure. Corruption is the biggest obstacle to [a] stable Kenya security-wise. What the police are doing is a short-term, reactionary strategy that will yield nothing.”
On the interior security ministry twitter handle Ole Lenku said the arrests have been made across the country and not in Eastleigh alone. “Let the criminals escape to other countries. Our exercise is to secure Kenya,” he added, noting that a “state of lawlessness has existed in Eastleigh for more than 20 years.”
Commenting on the large presence of Somali refugees residing in Eastleigh instead of in designated camps in Dadaab or Kakuma, Ali said: “Refugees, Somalis or otherwise, can live anywhere provided they comply with the law of the land. Some refugees have mandates from relevant UN agencies to live in major towns. If not, refugees will do anything to make [it] to the cities, thus corruption.”
Indeed, corrupt security forces have often been blamed for infiltration into the county by Al-Shabab insurgents.
Police inspector-general David Kimaiyo warned his forces against graft on Twitter stating: “We’ve put proper mechanism to fight corruption and those who’ll be caught receiving and giving bribes during [the] operation will face the law.”
Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Shakul, a Kenyan Somali community leader, accused the government of indiscriminately arresting the elderly, women and children. There were also claims of looting.
The member of parliament for Wajir East constituency in northeastern Kenya, Abbas Mohammed, added that the exercise is “inhumane, and it’s actually not in agreement with the Geneva Convention. Even if these guys are foreigners, even if they’re refugees, what the Kenyan police is doing is actually not fair.”
Nimo Nur Hajji, 25, who said she had arrived in Nairobi about two weeks ago for treatment, was among the deportees. She spoke with IRIN on the phone while in custody at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport detention centre an hour before she was deported to Mogadishu.
“I came from Garowe [Puntland’s administrative capital] for medical purposes. I had an appointment with a doctor on 15 April but I am being forced to leave the country. This is not my choice,” Hajji said.
She complained about the cold weather and hunger during her three days of “detention” at the Kasarani stadium. But according to Ole Lenku, the stadium is being used, “for screening suspects only and they do not spend the nights here. It has also been gazetted as a police station. Those suspects found innocent are released immediately.”
The Kenya Human Rights Commission noted that it had in the past week, “received multiple complaints of violations by state security agencies in the ongoing police operation. The complaints include arbitrary arrests, extortion, theft and looting of homesteads, sexual harassment, arbitrary detentions, illegal renditions, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
While KHRC officers were denied entry to Kasarani, they stated that they have got information “which establishes patterns of conduct by the Kenya Police that constitute serious violations of the constitution and international human rights standards and principles.” In a press conference on 10 April, the government denied the KHRC claims.
Earlier, cabinet secretary Ole Lenku had stated that, “the [security] operation will be done within the law and so far no reports of bribing or the rape allegations have been established. This is the country’s number one priority.”
Kenya has experienced an increased number of Al-Shabab attacks since the 2011 deployment of its troops to Somalia.
In September 2013, a shocking Al-Shabab assault on an upmarket shopping mall in Nairobi left at least 67 people dead.
What do you think of the detention of ethnic Somalis in Nairobi? Do let us know!
If so check out this link that contains charts on the migration flows between and within regions from 1990 to 2010.
These trends were documented by Nikola Sander, Guy J. Abel & Ramon Bauer at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. More charts and information like the one below here
In response to the earlier decision by the Kenya Government to close urban registration centres that we posted earlier, the UN denounced this order. Below is an article in the Kenyan newspaper Nation that covered this denouncement. What are your thoughts on this order by the Kenyan government?
The United Nations on Friday denounced the Kenyan government’s order for some 50,000 refugees to report to two camps.
“All communities are affected by insecurity, and scapegoating refugees is not an answer,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
(Also see the Editorial: Who’ll protect refugees?)
“Blanket implementation of encampment measures is arbitrary and unreasonable, and carries a threat to human dignity.”
Mr Edwards added that the UN refugee agency understood Kenya’s need to address security concerns.
The government’s move came after the latest in a series of deadly attacks on civilians linked to al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based militant group that carried out the Westgate massacre in September.
Gunmen shot dead six worshippers in a church in Likoni last Sunday.
“We are in close contact with the government to see how its security concerns can be addressed in accordance with international legal norms and practices,” Mr Edwards said.
He noted that Kenya has a long history of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. More than 550,000 people—430,000 of them from Somalia—are currently being given refuge in Kenya.
Human Rights Watch has also criticised the order for Somalis living in urban areas of Kenya to move to Dadaab and Kakuma.
“Kenya is once again using attacks by unknown criminals to stigmatise all refugees as potential terrorists,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at HRW. “This plan to force tens of thousands of refugees into appalling conditions in severely overcrowded camps flouts a crystal clear court ruling banning such a move.”
What do you think of this denouncement by the UN? Do share your opinion with us!
By CYRUS OMBATI Nairobi, Kenya: March 25th 2014: From Standard Media
The government has ordered all refugees residing outside Kakuma and Dadaab to return the refugee camps immediately. All refugee registration centres in urban in Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, Isiolo and Nakuru have also been closed. Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said any refugee found flouting his directive will be arrested and prosecuted. All Kenyans are requested to report to police any refugee or illegal immigrant found outside the designated camps, said Lenku in a statement. He said the move is part of the measures they are taking to address the increasing threat of terrorism in the country.
The minister said an additional 500 police officers have been deployed in Nairobi and Mombasa to enhance security and surveillance. He said other security agencies will support the operations.
Lenku added that 109 suspects have so far been arrested following the attack on a church in Likoni, Mombasa and are being interrogated. The move by the minister came amid reports some of the refugees could be behind the terror attacks being witnessed in the country. On Sunday, three gunmen who were armed with an AK 47 rifle dropped a box that had 36 rounds of ammunition as they escaped after killing six people at the church and injured 18 others. On Monday, four empty ammunition boxes were found at the Nakumatt Junction Mall basement.
The boxes were found abandoned on a trolley at the basement and seemed to have stayed there for long. Police have not established the whereabouts of the bullets that were emptied from the boxes or their origin.
What do you think about the connection being made between urban refugees in Nairobi and “terrorism acts” in the city? Do let us know your thoughts!
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo – Seventy-six-year-old Manuel Francis is aware of the irony of his predicament. As an immigration officer working on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola, he was forced to flee Angola in 1999, when the third phase of his country’s civil war broke out. Francis made his way to Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, to escape the violence.
“I lost everything. A decent house, a good salary. My heart aches when I think about what happened,” said Francis, dressed immaculately in a pinstriped shirt and brown trousers in Kinshasa.
More than 150,000 Angolans made their way into the DRC during the course of the civil war, which began shortly after Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Some 450,000 others ended up in South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, the Republic of Congo and Botswana.
The civil war dragged on for 27 years, pitting the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) against each other in a bid to control the country. The conflict soon became another proxy battle in the Cold War, with the US backing the UNITA and the Soviet Union supporting the MPLA. South Africa and Cuba also played major roles.
Angola’s brutal civil war, which was funded in part by the country’s mineral wealth, at one stage involved one in three Angolan children fighting as child soldiers. The war is said to have resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 people, and the displacement of a million people.
|Manuel Francis said he lost everything after being forced to flee Angola [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]|
The humanitarian disaster became one of the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) first emergency efforts to protect refugees outside of Europe since the agency’s formation in 1950.
Refugee status terminated
In 2012, as stability returned to Angola, the government of the DRC – like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa with sizable Angolan refugee populations – terminated the refugee status of Angolan refugees. The move was part of a plan to persuade the refugees to return home. For those ex-refugees who wanted to stay, the DRC government said it would make residency permits available.
Around 23,000 Angolans returned through the UNHCR-mediated repatriation programme in 2012. By January 2013, another 22,000 others said they were also prepared to return.
The UNHCR said the third wave of repatriations of Angolan refugees, due to start in mid-2014, is significant because it signals a possible conclusion to one of the continent’s oldest stories of displacement.
But another 47,815 Angolan refugees still live in the DRC, and have signalled their desire to remain. Maria Bueto Laudino, in her late 50s, said her husband was killed in an attack on her house in the country’s capital, Luanda, some 32 years ago. Laudino had to walk for three weeks, with four of her children and two orphans under her care, before she reached the DRC. “I saw beheaded bodies lying on the road along the way,” she said, with tears welling up in her eyes. “Never will these two legs ever return to Angola.”
|Maria Laudino said she will never return to Angola [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]|
Others said they are not confident it is safe for them to return. Francis claims his political history would get him killed if he stepped back into Angola. He is not the only one to speak of “insecurity” back home. Seventy-six-year-old Mendoza Alfonso, one of the first Angolan refugees to arrive in the DRC and a former fighter for the FNLA during the civil war, said returning to Angola was only an option once Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the country’s president since 1979, either steps down or dies.
Furthermore, ex-refugees said those who returned to Angola through the repatriation programme were finding re-integration harder than expected. Some even returned to the DRC after discovering little had been done by Angolan authorities to prepare for their arrival.
Carlos Cainda, president of the Angolan ex-refugee committee in Kinshasa, a loose body representing the community in discussions with the UNHCR and the government, told Al Jazeera many ex-refugees were enthusiastic about returning home, but need assurance that “reintegration was going to work”. Cainda said people would “pack up and go immediately” if they were sure they wouldn’t be forced to find refuge in the DRC again.
Tough times in Kinshasa
The hesitancy to return had little to do with a reluctance to leave Kinshasa, said Dieudonne Yenga, a coordinator with Erukin, an NGO working with urban refugees in the city. Kinshasa is a harsh city, one of the poorer capitals on the continent. Services like electricity, running water and medical care are unreliable, even non-existent in many areas. The lack of infrastructure, development and administrative services in the city mean that civil servants often go unpaid – fuelling a culture of bribery, corruption and criminal impunity.
“People don’t struggle here as they would in a conflict zone,” said Yenga. “The conflict in Kinshasa is an economic one.”
Some Angolan refugees have been here so long that they have integrated into communities between the border region of Ba Congo and Kinshasa. Theresa Nsimba, in her fifties, has been in the DRC for such a long time, she can’t remember when she arrived. Her son has to remind her that it has been 15 years.
It’s no surprise to the authorities, then, that so many Angolan refugees want to stay. Yenga said integration for Angolan refugees was not difficult, because they both speak Lingala and share the same culture as those living in the Kinshasa area. The cultural symmetry across borders is not unique: Refugees from the Central African Republic streaming into the DRC’s Equateur province, and Rwandan refugees who arrived in the DRC’s North Kivu province after the 1994 genocide, share ethnic and linguistic similarities with their host communities.
But the uncertainty over whether to stay or return has split the refugee community. Antione Makiese, 28, works occasional jobs as a mechanic. He is grateful to the DRC for providing him a sanctuary from the war, but now believes it is time to go back home. He plans to take his family to Angola as soon as the repatriation process is restarted. “It’s better to suffer in the country of your own origin than to be suffering in a foreign place,” he said.
|Ngadivua Makiese (right) refuses to leave Kinshasa [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]|
Makiese is married to a Congolese woman, and it’s unclear whether she will be able to make the journey with the family. Makiese’s younger brother, Ngadivua, 24, who has lived here since his teenage years, refuses to leave Kinshasa. This is his home now. But the decision threatens to split the family up once more, after they were forced to leave other family members behind in Angola back in 2001.
Angola’s economy is booming, but with high unemployment and continued poverty, refugees are unsure whether the move back would be an improvement over their current quality of life. Another refugee, living in ramshackle conditions with five children, and diagnosed with HIV, said she was receiving antiretroviral drugs in Kinshasa. She voiced concern over the availability of treatment in Angola, and decided to stay as a result.
The Makiese household, in the heart of Kinshasa’s Ngaliema-Ozone district, bears testimony to the squalid conditions of refugee life in Kinshasa. The family lives in a small brick house below street level, fitted with a corrugated iron roof. The alley off Mama Yemo Avenue that leads to the house is an open gutter of rotting trash, rodents and chickens. But this is not even a slum by Kinshasa standards; the living conditions are not out of the ordinary for millions of Congolese residing in the city and beyond.
‘An example for other countries’
Kinshasa’s poverty means that international groups aiding refugees living there must remain sensitive. The head of the country’s National Commission of Refugees, Berthe Zinga, told Al Jazeera that the DRC tries to ensure through its partners that aid benefits the larger Congolese community, and not just refugees.
The UNHCR said that although refugees would be able to return to Angola, the chance to remain in the DRC would also remain open. In a country with 2.4 million of its own people displaced and hundreds of thousands of refugees living within its borders, the DRC has proven to be generous in allowing refugees to remain.
“In many ways, this is an example for other countries who often do not offer residency to former refugees, which is something we encourage,” said Celine Schmitt, the UNHCR’s senior regional external relations officer, in Kinshasa.
Meanwhile, the immigration officer-turned-refugee, Manuel Francis, said he has no intention of applying for a residency permit in Kinshasa, despite his refusal to return to Angola. “I can’t practice politics here; there are too many spies in this city,” he said matter-of-factly.
Francis spoke slowly, thoughtfully, as he announced that the only way out for him would be to be resettled elsewhere, so that he might return to politics and help “liberate” Angola. “In politics, there is no age limit,” said the septuagenarian Francis. “I will do it to save my children.”
Did you know about Angolan Refugees in DRC? How is it that DRC has had an opend door policy for Refugees, even with its own crises, while other countries have not? We would love to hear your thoughts!