War and family links: The current Unaccompanied Children problems in the Great Lakes region
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The DRC currently hosts groups of refugees from countries such as Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo and Sudan, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.
Rwandan UACS (in the DRC)
Over the last 15 months, developments in the DRC, and the relative peace and stability in Rwanda have translated into the return home of around 30,000 Rwandans. Yet, according to UN sources, there are still another 30,000 Rwandans living in the Kivu provinces to be repatriated, of whom 3,000 may be separated from their parents.
Since the beginning of 2000, with an upsurge in the fighting in eastern DRC, particularly in the Masisi and Rutshuru provinces, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of internally displaced in the Kivu provinces. It is estimated that since the beginning of the year, the number of people forced from their homes in these two areas has risen by 250,000 to around 500,000. This has particularly affected the Rwandan populations living there and on average, some 500 Rwandans (mostly women and children) per week have been repatriated to Rwanda since beginning of the year and this trend is likely to continue in the near future.
New Rwandan UACs continue to emerge from the forests and after living with Congolese foster families in North and South Kivu. In the Masisi region, they are either handed over to Red Cross volunteers or they make their own way back towards the border before being handed over to the ICRC. In North Kivu, a local NGO partner, " Tout pour la paix et dévelopment " , is also collecting Rwandans seeking voluntary repatriation to bring them back to the border with Rwanda. Those UACs among them are then handed over to the Red Cross and briefly accommodated in three transit sites in Goma (fully supported by the ICRC with food) before being registered by the ICRC and repatriated.
South Kivu is also presently very unstable. The ICRC collaborates with IRC, which acts as a go-between to facilitate tracing activities and transmit RCMs. Unaccompanied children for repatriation to Rwanda are brought to Bukavu, from where they are repatriated directly to Cyangugo in Rwanda and collected by the ICRC, who register them immediately and start tracing proceedings.
Meanwhile, the objective continues to reunite Rwandan UACs currently staying in the DRC. Red Cross volunteers in the DRC have been recently carrying out censuses in foster families, but, given the combination of insecurity, population movements, problems of access and the great distances to be covered, this can take an exceedingly long time. In addition, for those UACs who have been separated from their Rwandan families for a number of years and who have become part of the foster family, persuading a child to return to his family in Rwanda or the foster family to release him/her can become additionally complicated.
Congolese UACs (in the DRC)
The ICRC's work on behalf of unaccompanied children in the DRC is not limited to Rwandan children. As described above, the ongoing conflict and instability in the DRC has led to thousands of Congolese families becoming displaced and separated in both rebel- and government-held areas. Since 1998, the ICRC has managed to reunite over 300 children with their families. This was helped in November 1999 when authorization was accorded for UACs and RCMs to cross the front lines.
The number of Congolese UACs registered has increased over the last few months, both within rebel-held territory, and between the eastern and the government-held areas. The RCM network has continued to grow and the ICRC trains and depends on National Society volunteers to carry on the remarkable tracing work in rural areas, many of which are off-limits for security reasons. Over 60,000 RCMs were handled between Jan-Mar 2000 in eastern DRC. More than 60 Red Cross tracing offices run by Red Cross volunteers have been opened throughout rebel-held territory (see map p.18).
Burundian UACS (in the DRC)
The ICRC has also registered 12 Burundian UACs among the estimated 20,000 Burundian refugees who fled the Burundi conflict and have been living dispersed across the Ruzizi plain in the DRC and are difficult to locate. The ICRC organizes family reunions for separated Burundian families between camps in the DRC and exchanges RCMs with families abroad and in other camps, however, family reunifications have not yet taken place in Burundi given the ongoing insecurity within the country (see below). The ICRC, following analysis of the situation, plans to initiate collaboration with NGOs (Oxfam-Quebec, Save the Children UK and Concern) who have continued to work in Burundi on behalf of UACs so as to try to reunite the 6 remaining Burundian UACs registered by the ICRC who are yet to be reunited with their families.
For several years Tanzania has been host to a growing influx of refugees from neighbouring countries. There are currently an estimated 350,000 Burundian, 110,000 Congolese and 15,000 Rwandan refugees living in camps, mainly in the Kigoma and Kagera regions of north-west Tanzania, and the country witnesses continued influxes of refugees from the DRC and Burundi. Since 1994, the ICRC, in close cooperation with the Tanzanian Red Cross Society (TRCS), carries out tracing activities mainly for Congolese and Rwandan refugees and particularly for UACs seeking to be reunited with their families in their countries of origin. In 1999, with the Tanzania Red Cross, a total of 38,683 Red Cross messages were handled on behalf Congolese, Burundian and Rwandan refugees throughout Tanzania, and with the assistance of the Tanzania Red Cross, 301 inter-camp reunifications were conducted for refugees separated as a result of conflict in neighbouring countries. Since the start of 2000, 600 Burundian UACs have been registered in Tanzania. Due to security constraints, the TRCS/ICRC is only carrying out inter-camp exchanges of Red Cross messages and UAC inter-camp family reunions for Burundian children (see below re: Burundi).
Since the ICRC's withdrawal from Burundi in 1996 and its subsequent return to the country last year, the ICRC considers the prevailing security situation to be presently too dangerous for the organization to resume its tracing activities (family reunifications and RCMs) within Burundi.
Republic of the Congo (Congo Brazzaville) - Rwandan UACs
Around 7,000 Rwandans who arrived in the Republic of the Congo in spring 1997 are currently living in two camps in the Republic of the Congo, at Kintele and at Loukolelas (25 km and 600 km north of Brazzaville respectively). Amongst the population are a number of unaccompanied children (286 cases open) who the ICRC started to register in 1997. Since December 1998, ICRC tracing activities have reunited 118 children. In addition, between June 1999 and April 2000, IRC carried out some 50 family reunions on behalf of Rwandan UACs returning to Rwanda from Congo Brazzaville. These UACs had previously been in touch with their families in Rwanda by using Red Cross messages.