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50 Years After Independence, Congo Struggles With Refugee Crisis

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50 Years After Independence, Congo Struggles With Refugee Crisis

50 Years After Independence, Congo Struggles With Refugee Crisis

50 Years After Independence, Congo Struggles With Refugee Crisis

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

As the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates its 50th year of independence, the nation is struggling with a refugee crisis, with an estimated 2 million internally displaced people in the Congo. Host Michel Martin discusses that issue —and possible solutions— with Reuben Brigety, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration Affairs at the U.S. State Department.


As you've heard us discuss on this program, the Democratic Republic of Congo is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium, which once imposed a brutal colonial government. But even with this historic milestone, many in the Congo see little reason to celebrate. That nation has been plagued with instability, civil war and political violence for decades, and it's led to a refugee crisis.

The advocacy group Refugees International has estimated that there are over two million internally displaced people in the Congo and 300,000 Congolese refugees in neighboring countries.

Reuben Brigety is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration Affairs at the State Department. He just returned from a trip to the Congo and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio to tell us more about it. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. REUBEN BRIGETY (Deputy Assistant Secretary, State Department Population, Refugees and Migration Affairs): Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask because your trip did coincide with the anniversary of independence, what was the mood?

Mr. BRIGETY: You could clearly see that there were preparations all across the capital of Kinshasa, also in Goma, the major city in the east. Major preparations for independence sprucing up the city and obviously reflections as well on what's happened in the 50 years.

MARTIN: This whole refugee crisis, do you think that crisis is a fair word to use?

Mr. BRIGETY: Absolutely. Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Have to put a damper on, you know, the celebration of that milestone. So I wanted to ask about, who constitutes the population of internally displaced people within the Congo. How did this happen?

Mr. BRIGETY: Sure. Well, the Congo was a vast country. It's about the size of Western Europe. So what that means, effectively is that there's still fighting between amongst a number of armed groups, particularly in the eastern part of the country. And because the country is so vast with so little infrastructure, it's actually really quite difficult for the central government to extend its writ throughout all parts of the country.

The Congolese military, the FARDC has some challenges. And as a result, the fighting amongst these various armed groups displaced as many people out of their homes, and as you just mentioned. The number of displaced is probably around two million people inside the DRC.

MARTIN: The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo officially expired on June 30th, which was right around the time of independence celebrations and the U.N. has pledged to withdraw up to 2,000 of its approximately 20,000 military personnel that's quite a large force there.

But the president, Joseph Kabila, says he wants all U.N. troops out by September of 2011. Does the administration, does the Obama administration have a position on this? And how would this shift if it does occur affect the situation?

Mr. BRIGETY: Sure. Well, Michel, earlier this spring, President Kabila also noted that he wanted all of the peacekeeping mission, then known as MONUC out, in through a series of negotiations at the U.N. What was decided was that the mission would be shifted. Instead of being MONUC, which is the U.N. non-mission in the Congo, it is now being called MONUSCO, the U.N. stabilization mission in the Congo, which started as of July 1st. And that mission will go until the 30th of June.

So the short answer to your question is that we will continue to work with the government of Congo, as will the rest of the international community, to just see where we are. Because I can tell you quite frankly, MONUSCO is absolutely critical to what stability there is in the eastern part of the country and it's hard to see how it could be more stable if those forces were withdrawn within a year.

MARTIN: You know, we've talked often and the secretary of state has been quite vocal about the whole question of systemic sexual violence, not just in the Congo, but Congo has become known as the rape capital of the world, where sexual violence is routinely used against women and others. And it has to be said, you know, men, too, and boys and children. And I'd like, just, what's the chicken and what's the egg here? I mean, is it that the refugee crisis creates such a destabilization that it's just easy to prey on people? What is your sense of this, how the two work together?

Mr. BRIGETY: Well, you are right. Sure. I mean, they're clearly integrally entwined. I mean, women are only as safe as the environment in which they operate, the environment in which they live. And as I mentioned before, the environment is incredibly unstable and there are a number of drivers to sexually-based violence, particularly in the eastern part of the Congo.

One is that, frankly, a number of these rapes are done by the Congolese military itself. They're not very well disciplined and there are even reports of officers who've tried to enforce discipline with regard to soldiers that have been raping civilians, many of those officers have indeed suffered at the hands of their own troops. So that's one problem.

Another problem is that there are these various militias that are not associated with the government that are also preying on the local civilian population either to gain access to commodities or to enforce discipline or simply to enforce, you know, chaos as - using rape as a weapon of fear in the population as well.

So while, you know, we are fond of saying in the State Department that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems, there are indeed only political solutions to humanitarian problems. So while there are any number of things that we do and programs we fund to help assist the population, at the end of the day, we have to focus on reform of the Congolese military, on bringing justice and accountability to that region so that you can create a more secure environment, which will in turn enable women to be more secure as well.

MARTIN: You pointed out the issue is complex, it's longstanding, it has a lot of factors. So what's your mission and how will you know if you have succeeded in it?

Mr. BRIGETY: Sure. Well, we basically have two missions. The first is to do our best to care for those people that are both displaced internally and the refugees across international boundaries, until such time as political and military conditions permit them to actually return home.

So to that end, for example, the State Department has contributed about $45 million last year alone to contribute to everything from shelter, health programs, programs to assist women that have been subject sexual violence. So that's one piece. Then the other piece is to be very active in our diplomacy to help actually address some of the longstanding political conflicts that have led to the armed violence which displaces people in the first place. And those are the two beta axis in which we're operating.

MARTIN: How will you know if you've succeeded?

Mr. BRIGETY: We'll know we've succeeded when people get to go home. It's just that simple. But on the one hand, while it's simple it's also really hard for all the reasons that you might imagine and that we've discussed as well. But it's a problem that we have to continue to work at.

MARTIN: And, finally, before I let you go, there are many urgent demands that this administration's expected to address, both domestically and foreign policy side, but just on the foreign policy side, of course it includes the wars in Iraq - Afghanistan and Iraq and other sort of pressing issues in the Middle East, and Pakistan and so forth.

And I would like to ask you, to the degree you feel comfortable saying, why should Americans listening to our conversation be concerned about this one?

Mr. BRIGETY: Because being concerned about this one is both in our values and our interests. As difficult as things are now, frankly, they were a lot worse 15 years ago, with the genocide in Rwanda, the displacements that caused, with the internal fighting inside the Congo. We do not want to see a repeat of that scale of fighting. Indeed, we want to try to work to ensure that it becomes more stable in the future, otherwise they will have disasters, consequences for everybody. So, for our values sake and for our interest sake, we need to continue to work this problem.

MARTIN: Reuben Brigety is the deputy assistant secretary for Population Refugees and Migration Affairs. He's just back from his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which as we've mentioned, just celebrated its the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.

Mr. BRIGETY: Thank you very much.

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