The plight of child refugees in Democratic Republic of Congo

Published: 18 June 2013 11:58 CET

By Mirabelle Enaka, IFRC

For 14 year old Patricia Yakoto, 1 February 2013 began like any other day, but it would end with her world, as she knows it, being turned upside down. “I was sent to the market by my mother to buy some items we needed for the house,” explains Patricia. “While there, I saw a group of people suddenly running in so many different directions, trying to get away.”

She didn’t know it, but rebel fighters had come to the village of Tongba Nzenge in Central African Republic (CAR). Not knowing what to do, the teenager decided to return home, but her mother, three brothers and two sisters were nowhere to be found. Panicked, Patricia followed the crowd. “I followed all the people from the village, hoping at each step to find my mother and brothers and sisters,” she says. “But until now, I have no news of them.”

Her flight took her and many others to the village of Kambo in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. She clung to one woman in the group, who also has children, in the hopes that the maternal warmth of this mother and the family atmosphere would help her cope. This woman has taken Patricia in, sharing what little rations she has, and Patricia now considers her an aunt. But the quiet, small teenager remains on the outside looking in. “I’m tired of always being told I am a person without family. When my aunt gives me food, the children insult me and remind me that I’m not family. I think of my mother, and how she would so willingly give food to passersby. I have no clothes, and have worn the same thing since I arrived here.”

Patricia is among thousands of children who fled the conflict in CAR. The majority are with their mothers, but some, like Patricia, are on their own, struggling to find their way. The refugees have settled in the UNHCR camp, with host families or simply on the banks of the Ubangi river. It is here where the young women in particular, face the most danger, exposed to a risk of rape and its repercussions.

With her hair dishevelled, her face full of sadness, her eyes filled with tears, Patricia yearns for the day when she will be reunited with her family. Until that happens, she welcomes the thought of being placed with a foster family. “I am ready to go, even now,” she says.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is responding with an emergency appeal to support the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as it assists 15,000 refugees with emergency relief, health care, and restoring family links. The organization’s efforts will focus on those refugees who do not want to move to the official camps, but prefer to stay near the river and their homeland. The appeal for 1.1 million Swiss francs is currently 34 per cent covered.