Over the past five weeks, almost 1,000 people have fled into Zambia to escape fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), forcing the Zambian government to consider re-opening a refugee camp it closed two years ago.
The refugees are pouring into Kilwa Island, on Lake Mweru, from villages in DRC’s Katanga Province. The island, located on the Zambian side of the lake, is about an hour by boat from the DRC border.
“Our concern is that there is only one water borehole on the island,” said Joyce Mends-Cole, the country representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Zambia. “Though the number of refugees has stabilized, we are not sure if the situation might worsen.”
|Our concern is that there is only one water borehole on the island|
Many refuges have told the Zambians that they fled an onslaught by the Mai-Mai militia groups, while others said they had been forced to leave because of fighting between the government’s forces, FARDC, and the rebel group M23 in eastern DRC.
Zambia has taken in refugees fleeing violence in DRC for more a decade. In 2010, UNHCR closed two camps in Luapula Province in the north, where Kilwa Island is also located, after most of the Congolese there decided to return home; the camps were handed over to the government. Now Zambia is considering partially reopening one of the camps – Mwange – to accommodate the Congolese, should the refugee numbers rise, said UNHCR. The other camp has already been turned into army barracks. The Zambian government is also looking at the option of setting up a new camp.
Meanwhile, the refugees on the island will be offered the option of moving to Meheba, a camp in the northwest. This move will involve some logistical difficulties as the refugees will have to be transported from the island to the mainland by boat. “There is only one boat which can carry 40 people at a time,” said Mends-Cole.
UNHCR, with support from the World Food Programme, has sufficient funds to take care of the immediate needs of the refugees, “but we have not anticipated the high numbers in our long-term budget,” she said.
She added that Zambian authorities “must be commended for their continued exemplary adherence to the international asylum regime and keeping their borders open”.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) recently condemned the deteriorating security situation in eastern DRC, including the invasion and capture of Goma on 20 November by the M23 rebels.