From October 12 to October 23, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda (very briefly) and Kenya. I was accompanied by PRM colleagues throughout the trip, including Refugee Coordinators Megan Larson-Kone, Inga Heemink and Jay Zimmerman (based in Kampala, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, respectively), as well as Wendy Henning and Liz Drew from Washington. This is a quick read-out and I hope to speak with interested NGOs and others in greater detail in the days to come.
In the DRC, our focus was the effectiveness of protection efforts in the east, where an ongoing humanitarian crisis has had devastating effects on the civilian population, nearly two million of whom are displaced in the region. We visited camps in North and South Kivu as well as a village to which a number of IDPs have recently returned. Those returns – involving more than 60,000 persons – were not the international humanitarian community’s finest moment. Many, if not most, IDPs were effectively forced back, and given little assistance or protection in doing so. Nobody should be victimized in that way, and it was all the more tragic that this involved camps where there was an international presence.
View of IDP camp near Minova, South Kivu, DRC.
We at PRM will work assiduously with UNHCR in its role as head of the protection cluster in Congo to ensure better performance. UN agencies and others on the ground – not to mention the Government of the DRC – have much to do to demonstrate a credible capacity to provide protection, though – with so many IDPs outside of camps – the task is admittedly overwhelming. The United States and other concerned governments must act on many fronts, to: 1) promote enhanced coordination and effectiveness among the many players on the ground involved in civilian protection, from UN agencies to MONUC to NGOs; 2) encourage MONUC and DRC authorities to promote more effectively FDLR disarmament; 3) end impunity for human rights abuses by DRC security forces and press for accountability; and 4) strongly support strengthened efforts by UN agencies and peacekeepers at civilian protection, including efforts to combat gender-based violence and child recruitment.
After briefly visiting a Rwandan government reception facility for ex-FDLR combatants across the border in Rwanda, we traveled to Nairobi and made two initial day trips by plane to Kakuma Camp in the northwest and to the Dadaab camps in the northeast. We then had meetings in Nairobi with senior Kenyan security and immigration officials, as well as with IO and NGO representatives.
Our principal objective in Kenya was to promote agreement on the building of a fourth camp for Somali refugees in the Dadaab area, where camps built for 90,000 are now holding more than three times that number. To encourage government of Kenya (GOK) agreement on a fourth camp, UNHCR has already offered the GOK a package that includes assistance for security management in the camps, host community development projects, better registration procedures for asylum seekers and some limited movement from Dadaab to the Kakuma Camp across the country. During my meetings, Kenyan officials seemed prepared to move forward, subject to additional assistance that addresses these and related issues, all of which we will be discussing in the days ahead. Needless to say, any agreement would need to retain basic protection principles, including the right of Somalis to flee persecution and conflict.
A Somali refugee tells me about her life in Kakuma camp at a water collection point.
At the time of our visit, reports were circulating about military or paramilitary recruitment in the camps in Kenya. In my meetings with senior security officials, I expressed, in the strongest possible terms, U.S. opposition to any such recruitment -- which violates international humanitarian principles.
Before closing, allow me to offer one final observation. We saw evidence of much suffering and despair on this visit. But we also witnessed many pockets of grace and tranquility which were both inspiring and invigorating. In Kenya, for example, I had a long conversation with about 15 unaccompanied minor refugee girls and young women who were being assisted by Heshima Kenya, an NGO supported by PRM. All of them have faced extraordinary challenges, and many have been subjected to unimaginable horrors. Some of the girls visit Heshima’s center daily for education, training and a range of other activities, and some live at the center’s safe house full-time. During our visit, we could all feel the sense of compassion in the environment, and the sense of relative calm in the way we were engaged by the girls and young women. One young Congolese woman at Heshima, who happened to be wearing an Obama hat, used her time to speak with me not to describe her prior experiences or to tell me of the counseling, education and training she was receiving. Rather, with great joy, she recounted the simple new pleasures of her life: sleeping in a bed at night, waking up and eating breakfast, going to class, eating lunch, and on and on. It was heartwarming to see that this small, U.S. government-supported organization was helping to provide this young woman (and others) with what should be the birthright of everyone.
I look forward to engaging with the NGO community on these and related issues in the days and weeks to come.