Every day, thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are forced to flee their homes.
In recent months, violent clashes have escalated, creating a massive refugee crisis that has gone largely unnoticed in much of the Western world.
“Political and ethnic tensions have forced millions of Congolese to leave their homes in the past year alone. The vast majority of these people are internally displaced within the country, while a minority have become refugees upon fleeing to neighboring countries,” said Amakala Constantin Sodio, the Kinshasa-based Catholic Relief Services country representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Congo-Brazzaville.
Sodio told CNA Dec. 8 there has been a “rapid escalation” of conflicts in the regions of Kasaï, Tanganyika and South Kivu in 2016 and 2017. This has put 4.3 million people into a crisis situation, facing emergency levels of food insecurity.
More than 1.7 million people have fled their homes this year alone. The U.N. has classed the country refugee situation as Level 3, equal to Syria, Iraq and Yemen in its humanitarian need.
The situation is far from stabilizing. At least 14 U.N. peacekeepers and five Congolese soldiers were killed in an attack in North Kivu province Thursday night, believed to have been carried out by a rebel group.
“It's a mega-crisis. The scale of people fleeing violence is off the charts, outpacing Syria, Yemen and Iraq,” said Ulrika Blom, the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, according to the BBC.
“If we fail to step up now, mass hunger will spread and people will die. We are in a race against time,” Blom added.
New armed conflicts, an intensification of current conflicts, and the delay in elections has helped drive the crisis, according to a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Lambert Mende, the country’s minister of information, disputed the report and said that displaced people number less than 1 million. He said displaced people were in fact returning from nearby countries, the BBC reports.
About 5,500 Congolese people flee their homes each day, the report said. There are 4 million displaced people in the country and over 7 million who lack adequate food.
The average life expectancy in the country is under 60 years old, and more than 75 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
Amid the current crisis, Catholic Relief Services aims to provide a rapid response to aid at-risk communities.
“With an initial focus on emergency response, CRS also carries out development programs focused on health, hygiene, nutrition, and agricultural interventions,” Sodio said. “CRS’ local partnerships and staff presence across the country ensures our ability to rapidly start up projects and reach people in remote areas.”
The Catholic relief agency has 182 staffers in the country and aided 1.3 million people with $27 million in resources programming in 2017, in collaboration with its partners.
The humanitarian emergency is complex and there are no simple solutions, Sodio said.
“Improvements to the quality of life of people displaced will happen slowly as countrywide efforts are made to strengthen local systems, so they may safely return home to rebuild dignified lives,” he said.
CRS has been in the country since 1961 and has maintained a continuous presence since 1993.
Sodio cited the words of Barbara Forbes, a DRC-based International Development Fellow at Catholic Relief Services, who noted that many Congolese refugees are expected to be among the 45,000 people resettled in the U.S. in 2018.
“Personally meeting refugees in the community is a great way for Americans to maintain perspective on this issue,” Forbes said.
“Americans can help these refugees thrive by offering them jobs and volunteering to drive them to medical appointments or explain their household bills,” she added. One refugee in the U.S. had told her of her dreams to go to college on a basketball scholarship and study law.
Such personal connections with refugees make clear the importance of advocacy for increased acceptance of refugee resettlement in the U.S., according to Forbes.