|The North Kivu region has been beset with violence resulting in the displacement of thousands of people in 2012 [EPA]|
Continued fighting in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has forced more than 3,000 civilians into Uganda since the beginning of this year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says.
In a statement released on Friday, the UNHCR said that an average of 50 people were passing over into Uganda every day this year, after a series of attacks on farms and villages in the volatile northeastern region.
About2,200 civilians crossed into Uganda in February alone, it said.
“It is a new situation we have to deal with, considering that we are in the midst of a plan to return displaced Congolese civilians from Uganda – after signing an agreement in 2010 – but now people are fleeing into Uganda again,” Celine Schmitt, the UNHCR’s external relations officer in Kinshasa, told Al Jazeera.
Between 2010 and 2011, about 7,000 displaced Congolese living in Uganda returned to the DRC.
According to the UNHCR, the new wave of displacements include many of the returning civilians who had made the journey back in the last two years.
“We fear that if the violence continues, there will be more displacements … and this poses a major risk to the project to return refugees to their homes”, Schmitt said.
In a region of the world with scores of armed rebel groups, the UNHCR says it is still unclear who were attacking the villages, but the scale of movement is causing much concern.
While most refugees originate from North Kivu’s Rutshuru district, close to the border with Uganda, some are making the journey from Masisi and Walikale territories, located further inside North Kivu – about 200km and 350km from Uganda respectively.
“People who have usually moved across the border are from the district Rutshurum, but we are getting reports that many are moving from Walikale and walking seven days or from Masisi and walking up to four days to cross into Uganda,” Schmitt added.
“This means that if people are walking such long distances to escape, the situation must be quite dire in those areas.”
Some of the refugees told UNHCR staff that following nightly attacks by armed men, whole villages had fled.
In Kisoro, a Congolese man recounted how he was sexually assaulted by several men after being forced to witness his wife being gang raped. His daughter, who resisted, was killed by the same group.
The UNHCR has opened a transit centre in Nyakabande, in the Kisoro District, with capacity for 1,000 people.
The centre will provide accommodation, water and sanitation facilities, cooked meals and basic medical care.
The UNHCR fears that further deterioration of the security situation will bring to a halt the tripartite process initiated by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and UNHCR in October 2010 to pave the way for the voluntary return of Congolese refugees living in Uganda.
When the agreement was originally signed, 32,000 out of the 81,000 Congolese refugees living in Uganda had expressed a wish to return home.
Renewed violence involving government troops, FDLR forces, and local defence groups in the DRC’s eastern region has forced more than 100,000 civilians out of their homes since late November.
Most are in North Kivu, where there are about 600,000 internally displaced people (IDP), over one-third of the 1.7 million IDPs countrywide.