People already made homeless by the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are once more at risk, threatened by the closure of camps in North Kivu Province by politicians and the military who regard them as sanctuaries for rebel fighters.
The killing of two soldiers in March in Mpati, in the Masisi region, allegedly by shots fired from inside a camp, was the final straw for the local authorities. They accuse FDLR rebels (originally made up of Hutu forces accused of participating in the Rwandan genocide) of sheltering among the displaced.
According to North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku, the “camps are reservoirs for criminals”. The alleged ease of access for gunmen is frustrating the military campaign against the FDLR, who are accused of rape, killings, extortion and forced recruitment among civilians.
"Each time there are military operations against the FDLRs, the figures for people in the camps increases – it’s because rebels hide in the camps,” Paluku told IRIN.
North Kivu shelters some 781,000 IDPs, with around 45,000 scattered in seven sites in the Mpati area, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. The Mpati camps, roughly 100 kilometers southwest of Goma, the North Kivu capital, are mainly inhabited by Congolese Hutus.
The army’s offensive against the FDLR – a force which analysts estimate numbers around 1,000 men – has rumbled on for more than a year. In the latest round of heavy fighting at the end of March, more than 30,000 people were forced to flee the Mpati camps.
Although the fighting has eased, the authorities say the situation is still too unsafe for the IDPs to return. They have been forced to shelter with local families, who have very little food to spare, or to sleep rough in schools and church grounds in the Mpati area.
OCHA says the situation hides a "forced and definitive closure of the camps" and is a matter of "great concern" for IDP protection. It warned that three other camps in Masisi – Kashuga 1 and 2 and Mweso – are also at risk of closure, likely to force another 19,000 people on the road.
The IDP camps are under the administration of the National Commission for Refugees, with the support of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Office for Migration. The government is wholly responsible for security.
Omar Kavota, head of human rights group CEPADHO, says the authorities have “dragged their feet” over warnings by NGOs of weapons in IDP camps.
According to a senior UN official, the presence of weapons in camps is an open secret – an opinion shared by a high-ranking army officer, who asked not to be named.
"Camps harbour fighters. The management of those camps is highly problematic because there are worrying gaps, and maybe some form of complicity,” he told IRIN.
Unable to separate genuine IDPs from the gunmen, the government appears to have opted for the drastic and potentially short-sighted option of closing whatever sites it deems of concern – either de facto or formally.
Chaloka Beyani, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, visited camps in North Kivu and Ituri provinces at the end of April. One of the key reasons for his tour was the threat of camp closures without consultation with the humanitarian community.
Creating more insecurity
"The closure of IDPs camps or sites leads to more displacement. It doesn’t resolve the problem,” he told IRIN. "You create more humanitarian needs. You also create more issues of insecurity in relation to the local population. So the closure must be linked to solutions and a strategy.”
Beyani stressed that "we don’t have accurate information, there is no accurate data" concerning the presence of armed elements in camps, "because profiling, screening, registration is not taking place". He called for the deployment of a "neutral police presence" to deter infiltration.
Camp closures are not new, and as a result there has been a history of friction with aid workers. An agreement two years ago helped ease some of the tension when the authorities promised to consult before shutting sites down, and in 2015 five camps were disbanded.
But the destruction of the Mokoto camp in January this year, home to more than 4,200 people, a week after a single weapon was found, was roundly condemned by humanitarian agencies. They said they had been given far too little time to prepare, and the action was described as "collective punishment imposed on vulnerable people" by the head of OCHA in Congo, Rein Paulsen.
Paluku denies that Mokoto’s closure was a disproportionate response. "If we manage to find one weapon, it doesn’t mean there is only one. There can be more,” he told IRIN.
"Security standards are not determined by NGOs or OCHA,” he added. "They are waiting for millions, and millions and millions of dollars. For them, camps are a job. But we are a sovereign state. If we feel there are security problems, then we close the camp… I can’t pity criminals."
Paluku also dismisses the accusation that Hutus are falling foul of local politics amid rising tension between them and the majority Nande community.
He claims that Hutus, whether Congolese or Rwandan, tend to settle in areas where "there is no police, nor FARDC (the national army), but only FDLRs. This feeds the idea among other communities that they have a deal with the FDLRs”.
Those who aren’t rebel fighters, but who are simply displaced by the fighting, face yet more hardship at the hands of the very people supposed to protect them.