UNHCR Offers Support to Orphaned Congolese Youngsters

12/09/2011 - The UNHCR is helping to support centres caring for orphaned and vulnerable children or refugees in the Republic of Congo.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is supporting five centres to care for orphaned and vulnerable children in the Republic of Congo. One of these is the Centre of Insertion and Reinsertion of Vulnerable Children (CIREV). While CIREV is aided in its mission by the UNHCR (who mostly provides food assistance), it is run by the government.

The Republic of Congo has experienced its own bouts of ethnic fighting and civil conflict since its independence. However, violence in nearby African countries has also spilled across its borders. Among these external conflicts was ethnic fighting that broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) Equateur province. For a number of years, the DRC was in the middle of what has been called Africa's World War. The five-year conflict, which led to a peace deal being signed in 2003, saw forces supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe against forces supported by Uganda and Rwanda.

It can be difficult to find appropriate care for orphaned and abandoned children during and after humanitarian situations. Some members of the community may express wariness in taking them in, fearing that they bring with them bad luck or witchcraft. Accusations of this type are common when foster families start to face financial difficulties in caring for another household member, notes the UNHCR.

This is what happened to one child refugee profiled by the agency in a recent news release. The now 12-year old Alphonse fled his home to the Republic of Congo and is now living at the CIREV. While his parents were originally from Rwanda, Alphonse was born on the run. He came to Impfondo (northern Congo) with mother an stepfather about a decade ago. Traumatically, when his mother died, Alphonse was abandoned and left at the UNHCR office in the town. Sent to live with a foster family, Alphonse was soon rejected and accused of sorcery. Until he was offered aid by the UNHCR, he faced social exclusion and marginalization.

Both refugees and native Congolese children find a source of food, shelter, education and protection at CIREV and its sister institutions. Most of the orphanages in Brazzaville (the national capital) are run by religious organizations, who come across their charges via social workers, local parishes and police officers.

Unfortunately, while centres like CIREV can provide a home to youngsters like Alphonse, they cannot promise happy, successful futures to the orphans and street children for whom they care. Psychosocial treatment is another service that is in demand, but also in shortage.

Unaccompanied refugee children, orphans and other vulnerable groups of young people are a major concern to the UNHCR, who has a mission to "lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide." The agency is currently helping 36.4 million people in 120 countries.

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), “of the millions of children displaced by war, unaccompanied children are at the greatest risk.” These are young people who are most likely lack access to the basic necessities of life. They are also the most likely to have their rights violated, including through torture, rape, robbery, death and child soldier recruitment.

The UNHCR regularly monitors the well-being of the denizens of Brazzaville's five orphan homes, as well as children now living with foster families. A total of 214 orphaned refugees or unaccompanied children living in the Republic of Congo are being aided by the UNHCR, which is also working to decipher the best interest of each child in the short and long terms. In the long run, for instance, it must be decided whether or not refugee children should be repatriated (if they so wish) or fully integrated into the local community.

Many of the refugees and asylum-seekers in the country – 15,000 of whom live in the northern Likouala region – came from the DRC's Equateur province. Others are refugee from Rwanda, Chad and Côte d'Ivoire. As of January 2011, there were 138,737 "persons of concern" to the UNHCR in the Republic of Congo, all of whom were either refugees, asylum-seekers or returned refugees.