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Africa | Forcible displacement from conflicts



The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) holds the largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Africa. The DRC’s eastern regions of North Kivu (NK), South Kivu (SK), and Ituri have been submerged in protracted conflict for decades as hundreds of armed groups battle for control over people, land, and resources. Over the last year, conflict has intensified in all three regions. In 2022, over 4 Million Congolese became displaced, an annual figure only exceeded by IDPs in Ukraine. Displacement rates remain elevated in 2023. As of 31 March, 60% of IDPs in the DRC are children, and over 50% are women.

In SK, the region where the least displaced persons (DPs) have recently originated, displacement was provoked by sporadic but persistent fighting between several armed groups - most of which remain unknown - and flooding. In May 2023 alone, 21,200 Congolese were displaced in Northern SK by flooding.

From January to April 2023, over 700,000 Congolese became displaced in Southern NK, near the provincial capital of Goma. The majority of these displacements result from renewed fighting between the M23, a rebel group tacitly backed by Rwanda, and the DRC’s armed forces (FARDC). Since April, the fighting, as well as levels of displacement, have calmed, but skirmishes between armed groups continue to drive displacement near Goma.

Displacements in Northern NK and Southern Ituri - almost exclusively driven by increasing attacks on civilians by terror group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) - have already surpassed 270,000 this year. Since 2013, the ADF has killed roughly 6,000 civilians with impunity. The group systematically executes civilians and has continued to grow and commit more mass-scale attacks (dozens of civilians) this year as the government focused its efforts on Goma.

In Central and Northern Ituri, a massive uptick in violence brought on mostly by Coopérative pour le développement du Congo (CODECO), Zaire PF, and Chini-Ya rebel groups, has caused approximately 250,000 Congolese to flee, many into neighbouring Uganda. These groups have clashed with each other repeatedly and have begun to indiscriminately target civilians.

Current Figures

Government Response

The DRC’s Ministries of Health, Interior, Planning, Foreign Affairs and Congolese Abroad, Employment, Labour and Social Welfare, as well as its Directorate Generals of Migration and National Border Management, all collaborate with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). IOM states they “work closely” with provincial organisations, such as the Commission Nationale pour les Réfugiés (CNR), the Division des Affaires Humanitaires (DIVAH), and provincial governments.

Although the UN highlights its cooperation with the DRC, the country’s resource contribution to addressing displaced persons appears minimal. The DRC’s foremost effort in handling insecurity is its Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reintegration, and Stabilization  programme (P-DDRCS), which appears to minimally support efforts to assist internal and external DPs. According to IOM, despite “significant measures to end violence against civilians”, the DRC’s efforts have been hindered by “slow national-level reform processes and funding commitment.”

It remains unclear exactly how much the DRC government contributes to financially addressing the needs of DPs. Despite a recent increase in the state budget, low, inefficient state spending indicates minimal contribution.

Relief Efforts

While the international community substantially invests in efforts spearheaded by international organisations and NGOs to address IDPs and DPs in the country, efforts do not come close to meeting the needs of all those displaced in the DRC. The largest scale efforts in the DRC are made by the UNHCR in partnership with IOM, which are funded principally by the EU and US. Between the two groups, they have requested roughly $429 million in 2023 for efforts within the DRC and have so far received roughly $110 million.

The UN employs its funding to manage camps and provide food, water, hygiene, and sanitation services, mental health and protection services, and psychosocial support. Despite their efforts, significant funding gaps in 2022 led to three-quarters of displaced persons being unable to support themselves financially, four-fifths not having “adequate shelter,” and women frequently being victims of gender-based violence, an issue that continues. Unfortunately, most IDPs live with host families, with only 20% living in a displacement site.

In 2023, the US pledged to provide $224.3 million in food assistance to IDPs, host community members, and refugees in the DRC. The US will also provide $20.1 million for shelters and settlements and $50.1 million for water and sanitation. These donations will be administered by NGOs, UN Partners, and the World Food Programme. There are 343 NGOs registered in the UK that work on “aid/famine relief” or “health or saving lives” in the DRC. Although many of them likely support the displaced, statistics on total NGO spending and activities indicate that NGOs are less active in the DRC than in more stable countries in Africa and likely spend a tiny fraction compared to other UN efforts.

Through the Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP), the UNHCR and IOM coordinate with 69 humanitarian organisations to support Congolese who have fled the DRC, providing similar service to those within the DRC. Similarly to the case within the DRC, efforts outside the country are not meeting the needs of Congolese refugees.

Funding for the RRP (Congolese IDPs and Refugees outside of the DRC)

  • UNHCR Inter-Agency Refugee Aid Portal - tracks funding requests by all major refugee aid organisations in the DRC and money correspondingly allocated. Targeted to assist roughly 1.5 million refugees/IDPs in the DRC.

Political Risks

The salient risk associated with mass displacement in the DRC is the continuation of the conflict. The Eastern DRC is an incredibly ethnically diverse region with a multitude of natural resources, and most parts of it lack the most elementary security services. In such a context, the inability to provide millions of externally and internally displaced people with basic services and/or economic opportunities drives  conflict. The immense complexity and extensiveness of conflict in the Eastern DRC make it inherently difficult to tackle, especially for chronically under-resourced security forces that are at times employed by their governments to support armed groups to further their unique regional interests.

Another critical risk of continued displacement in the DRC is increased tensions within and between regional states, all of which host Congolese refugees. Although Uganda houses the largest number of Congolese refugees, spillover remains more probable in South Sudan and Rwanda. As a result of the ongoing conflict in Sudan, at least 200,570 refugees poured into South Sudan as of 1 August, in addition to Congolese arrivals. Ethnic conflict and tensions in South Sudan, combined with a severe lack of resources, excess poverty, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees have the potential to lead to a larger conflict. This would likely drive many Congolese refugees, alongside thousands of South Sudanese refugees back into the DRC.

Most refugees that end up in Rwanda - although comparatively few - come as a result of conflict in and around Goma. As of late, conflict around Goma has been principally driven by the M23, a Tutsi rebel group with roots in the Rwandan genocide that the UN, the DRC, and the EU all accuse of receiving direct support from Rwanda. A 2022 UN report concluded that Rwanda directly supported the M23 with troop reinforcements. In response, the DRC supports local militia groups, including the Hutu rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). If Rwanda and the DRC continue to engage in what is effectively a proxy war in the Eastern DRC, the number of refugees and displaced persons will continue to increase.

The ADF, recently grew in numbers and strength, and killed over 40 children at a school in Uganda on 17 June. This was the group’s first major attack in Uganda and may drag the country into the conflict. The ADF has driven hundreds of thousands out of NK and Ituri this year alone, having committed dozens of attacks that have resulted in at least ten deaths. Over the last year, the group has been operating with impunity as the FARDC has focused on defeating the M23 near Goma. In the absence of a large-scale multilateral assault on the ADF, the group will very likely continue to displace Congolese in massive quantities.

Expected Trends

General levels of conflict will most certainly persist, particularly in Central and Northern Ituri, causing displacement and driving refugees into South Sudan and Uganda. The most active armed groups in Ituri - and the DRC in general - are driven more by ethnic tensions and desperation than any overarching ideology. Ituri is unlikely to see any significant influx of development funding and remains a low priority for domestic and international actors.

The ADF is expected to continue attacks that cause mass displacement, but the relative calm of the situation around Goma and the ADF’s recent foray into Uganda will very likely draw the attention of domestic and international actors, possibly eliciting a more robust security response. Climate change events and the continuation of deforestation in the Congo Basin, which primarily lies in the DRC, will catapult the issue of displaced persons. While only 3% of IDPs are currently connected to natural disasters in the DRC, this will no doubt change as Africa bears the brunt of global warming. According to the 2023 Global Humanitarian Overview report, natural disasters are expected to occur in the DRC, such as “floods, crop destruction, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions”, exacerbating risks for already vulnerable populations. Additionally, the Congo Basin has lost the largest area to deforestation in the world over the last decade (3.9 million hectares), resulting in disastrous environmental impacts and human rights abuses. The illegal trade has directly supported several rebel groups in the country, including the ADF. Environmental crimes, such as illegal logging, overlap the same routes used by “arms and human trafficking, slave work and sexual exploitation.”

According to UNICEF Emergency Manager Dounia Dekhili, IDP camps in the DRC are “fraught with danger”. Children and youths are at high risk of experiencing gender-based violence and unsanitary conditions in densely populated camps. “It is likely that measles, cholera, malaria, another outbreak of Ebola, and outbreaks of diseases such as bubonic plague or monkeypox will continue to break out across the country.”

With 20% of the population in the DRC being displaced, the increase in conflict, and insufficient funding, there were “no improvements” last year and none are expected for 2023-2024. Political instability and electoral violence is increasingly likely as elections approach this December. With the DRC being “one of the continent’s most complex and long-standing humanitarian crises” and the expected influx of environmental, political, security, and health crises, the already chaotic situation will be pushed to an all-out cataclysm.

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