Goma — As thousands of Congolese flee a rebel advance, the UN refugee agency is calling on governments not to forcibly return people to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North and South Kivu provinces, pending improvement in the security and human rights situations.
"Our advisory makes the same recommendation for areas neighbouring the Kivus, particularly Katanga province which is affected by the spill-over of the conflict," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists, amid news reports that fighters from the M23 movement had captured Goma airport and entered the provincial capital of North Kivu.
"UNHCR considers people fleeing the conflict in the Kivus and nearby affected areas as likely to be needing international refugee protection. UNHCR also cautions against returning them to safer parts of DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], unless they have strong and close links there," Edwards added.
Fighting over recent months in the Kivus has been particularly intense between government forces and the rebel M23 movement in North Kivu, but also in South Kivu between government forces and other armed groups as well as between rival armed groups.
"Currently, we are especially concerned by the situation around Goma where there has been significant new displacement over the last few days," Edwards said. The M23 advance has prompted many people to flee towards Goma and Rwanda, and a spontaneous settlement at Kanyaruchinya village that hosted some 60,000 people has been virtually emptied.
Around Goma, women and children are reported to be converging at Mugunga 3 camp and various spontaneous settlements. "Many humanitarian activities have been suspended because of the security situation," Edwards noted.
Since the beginning of this year, renewed conflict in these two regions has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation and uprooted close to 650,000 people. This includes 250,000 newly displaced civilians in North Kivu and 339,000 others in South Kivu since April. Over the same period, more than 40,000 people have fled to Uganda and 15,000 to Rwanda. Burundi has been receiving around 1,000 new Congolese arrivals every month since August.
The eastern DRC region has for almost two decades been plagued by widespread violence, human rights abuses and general lawlessness by parties to the conflict, including mass rape, forced recruitment, murder and pillaging. Caught between rival groups, civilians are often targeted and abused by fighters for their supposed allegiance to the enemy.
Edwards explained that UNHCR's advisory to governments, first issued last week, "says that exclusion from refugee status may need to be looked into for individuals who may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The total number of Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries is estimated at more than 460,000. These are mainly in Uganda, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania.