Voices from Exile: Daily realities and future prospects of Congolese and Burundian refugees in the Great Lakes Region

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The objective of this study is to bring new light on how Congolese and Burundian refugees live from day to day in exile in the Great Lakes region, and how they perceive and understand the options available to them in this context.

The research is a continuation of that started in 2010 in a joint effort between the Danish Refugee Council and the Congolese and Burundian civil society organisations ADEPAE (Action pour le Développement et la Paix Endogènes), Rema Industries, and SVH (Solidarité des Volontaires pour l’Humanité). Using testimonies gathered from Congolese and Burundian refugees in seven different sites in Burundi, DRC and Tanzania, the purpose of the research is to bring the position of the refugees to the attention of national and local politicians and decision-makers when they deal with the refugees’ problems and seek solutions for them.

A second objective is to bring a regional perspective to the problems of displacement, exile and return, and to highlight the limits of the three political solutions offered by the existing normative framework: a voluntary return to the country of origin; integration locally into the host country; or resettlement in a third country.

The great majority of these Congolese and Burundian refugees in exile in Tanzania, Burundi and DRC were forced to flee wars and violence resulting from the socio-political history of their countries. In 1972, 1988 and 1993, hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled in waves from political crises and massacres triggered by the internecine
contest for power between the Hutu and Tutsi communities. In 1996-97, huge numbers of refugees left the DRC when Mobutu was ousted during the AFDL war after thirty years of dictatorship. These movements continued after the second Congolese war of 1998-2003, and do so today in North and South Kivu as the result of repeated clashes between rebel groups and the regular army. These conflicts affect all citizens without exception and whatever their social standing. However, although the victims of war, and particularly refugees, share a common fate, the effects of displacement are felt very differently by each individual. The interviews carried out with the refugees during this project demonstrate just how different each individual case is. Social status, home and community of origin, knowledge of the country of exile and the local language, existence or not of a support system, family situation, depth of sense of identity, as well as the actual physical escape into exile all contribute to the unique case of each refugee.

The manner of departure from the home country has a direct bearing on the refugee’s ability to come to terms with exile and to overcome obstacles. Departure is often violent and traumatic, even if experienced differently by different people. All the refugees in the study report having witnessed – directly or indirectly – acts of violence
committed by armed groups or civilians while fleeing war in their own country, and the memory of these are particularly painful. Some have been direct victims of violence and still suffer the physical effects. Others have fled out of fear of becoming victims themselves, a fear which prevents them today from envisaging a return home.

The experience of exile ends up having a profound effect on the identity and personality of a refugee. After ten, fifteen or thirty years in exile, the process of reshaping identity is complicated – the refugee is no longer the same person as when he or she left. The process varies according to the personal situation of the refugee and
his or her journey into exile: age at the moment of departure; number of years spent outside his or her own country; economic, social, cultural and linguistic differences between the country of origin and the host country; living in a camp surrounded by compatriots; or trying to integrate into a new social structure, are all variables which impact on the personal identity of a refugee.

Given the circumstances of their displacement and their subsequent trajectories, and in spite of the advantages of assistance and humanitarian protection conferred by their refugee status, the Burundians and Congolese describe daily life as precarious, with heightened levels of vulnerability. Whether in camps or in towns and villages, all the refugees say the reality of their existence is that it is inherently uncertain, the financial means at their disposal are limited, they suffer significant social discrimination, are frustrated with their dependence on aid, and have great difficulty envisaging a mid- or long-term future. This is exacerbated by their very limited knowledge of the assistance frameworks on offer, which creates confusion about the options available and affects their ability
to look to the future in an informed and objective way. Although the refugees claim they are grateful for this assistance, all of them express dissatisfaction. They criticise both the quality and quantity of the aid, saying that it never fully meets their needs. The resulting economic insecurity has serious social consequences: many refugees
admit to resorting to degrading or illegal activities to make up the shortfall.

Refugees also complain of receiving no reliable or transparent information on their rights, or regarding either the political protection or legal options available to them. Faced with this lack of options for recourse in the event of abuse, rare are those who dare to, or who can afford to, appeal to the authorities of the host country. These frustrations are aggravated by the very limited information they are given on what assistance they are entitled to, which causes confusion on their future options and means they cannot consider their future in an objective and informed way. They are confused about the conditions governing the granting and withdrawal of refugee status, and
what exactly is meant by this status. The disconnection between descriptions of the normative framework and the refugees’ perceptions is clearly evident in the cases of the Burundian refugees in the village of Kenya, those in Bukavu, and those recently repatriated from Mtabila. The same confusion reigns regarding possibilities for resettlement in a third country; the refugees give numerous examples of the extent of their ignorance as to the precise conditions of eligibility and how to submit an application for resettlement. This confusion leads to unrealistic expectations on the part of some, and ends in feelings of deep despair.

In the face of the day-to-day struggle to meet their needs and those of their families, refugees often have little choice but to find alternative, more or less legal, strategies for survival. Whether in camps or in an urban situation they find food, shelter, medical care and schooling for their children by developing strategies to find employment and other means of livelihood. These strategies are often not very profitable, and can expose the refugees to further vulnerability and different types of abuse. The existence and energy of social groups and networks, whether ethnic, religious or political, helps to arm them against the major disruptions caused by displacement,
so that they rebuild bonds and solidarity and overcome daily difficulties together. However, although these networks play an important part in lessening the refugees’ suffering, they can also, in some cases, help to accentuate the conflicts between different groups and communities, thus weakening security conditions in exile.

In these circumstances, future prospects are relatively limited, evaluated by each individual according to personal living conditions and specific needs. Basically, refugees are presented with three options by the aid organisations and governments, as mentioned above: a return to the country of origin; integration into the host country; or relocation to a third country.

Although many of the refugees hope to return home one day, they have very strict conditions to be met before they entertain the idea of returning. They cite the need for political openness, safety and social and economic opportunities in their country of origin. Those who prefer to stay and integrate into the host country are generally
those who have been able to forge solid links there over a more or less long period of time. Others, mainly the young and the particularly vulnerable, have such a negative vision of their situation that their only desire is to seek new horizons in the West or in Australia.

There is another smaller group of people, disillusioned and traumatised by their experience of exile, who seem unable to envisage any long-term future and who put their lives in the hands of God or UNHCR. The study concludes by highlighting the need to systematically include the refugees’ individual perspectives and needs in deciding on national and regional policies on protection and aid so that they take into account the diversity of each experience and the specificity of individual needs. By giving priority to the refugees’ own points of view, the study provides a critical analysis of the applicability of the three options presented to them as durable solutions. Thanks to its regional dimension and coverage of so many points of view from the seven distinct sites, the study reveals numerous similarities between the three countries, and between the behaviour and perspectives of the refugees in each of the different sites. The comparative analysis emphasises that while it is necessary to recognise the numerous and very different experiences the individual refugees have lived through, the solutions found and implemented for their future must be envisaged on the basis of an analysis of the local and regional situation.

The report recommends, among other things:
– An approach to protection and assistance which is both more humane and more inclusive.
– Increasing the options available for the future and envisaging tailor-made solutions that take proper account of the individual vulnerabilities and aspirations of the refugees.
– Defining integrated response strategies implemented by stakeholders at the local, national and regional level.

Full report available here.