Zambia Faces a Humanitarian Disaster

Why you should care

A country that has largely escaped the postcolonial war and bloodshed of many of its neighbors faces a humanitarian crisis.

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When Kabongo Mukendi fled the Democratic Republic of Congo for Zambia in late 2017 with her two children amid a deadly conflict between the government and rebels in the DRC’s eastern Goma region, she knew building a life in a new nation would be difficult. What she couldn’t have known was just how difficult it would be — and not just for her, but also for the country taking her in.

Mukendi and her children — her husband is still in Congo — are among an estimated 10,000 Congolese refugees currently at the Kenani transit center in Nchelenge District, Luapula Province, in northern Zambia. And they’re just a subset of the more than 27,300 Congolese refugees in Zambia, almost half the total number of 60,606 from the DRC seeking asylum in neighboring nations, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many more are still trekking into Zambia daily to escape the rising turmoil in the Central African state.

My heart breaks every time [my son] gets ill.

Kabongo Mukendi, a Congolese refugee in Zambia

Taking in refugees isn’t new for Zambia. But a sharp uptick in refugees — 5,761 Congolese crossed the border in 2017 — is coinciding with concerns over corruption in the use of foreign aid, leaving Zambia, a country that has largely escaped the postcolonial war and bloodshed of many of its neighbors, on the precipice of a humanitarian crisis of its own. Local and international aid agencies such as the Zambia Red Cross Society, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration are securing more land, tents and other logistics to accommodate incoming refugees. But Zambia’s ability to support the refugees is being challenged by other cutbacks in aid. Sweden and Finland halted payments to a Zambian farmers’ collective in 2016 amid corruption allegations. And the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently reported three nonprofits to the Zambia police and the country’s Drug Enforcement Commission following an audit showing that these organizations had misappropriated the agency’s aid meant for monitoring the 2016 general election — even as Zambia’s government is appealing for still greater financial assistance.

At the Kenani camp, Mukendi’s struggle is mirroring this crunch. She says she can barely put a decent meal on the table for her children. And her son, Jordan, had to drop out of school and find a job to help her meet expenses.

“My heart breaks every time he gets ill,” she says, barely holding back her tears. “He’s only 13 years old.”

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A family of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo sit by their makeshift hut at the Kenani refugee transit camp.

Source OBERT SIMWANZA/AFP/Getty

As with Mukendi, the majority of the refugee families are households headed by women, who have exhausted their savings and other assets. Life is a constant mix of fear, anxiety and hope for a better future. According to reports by some aid workers, 60 percent of those arriving in Zambia are children and show signs of malnutrition, malaria, respiratory problems, dysentery and skin infections.

But the fears for Zambia are deeper. An outbreak of Ebola in Congo in 2017 has led to worries of a transmission of that disease to Zambia through the refugees. World Health Organization reports show that a staggering 560 people have died from cholera, Ebola and other related diseases in recent months in Congo. This has prompted the U.N. health agency to contribute $400,000 to assist in fighting the escalating pandemics rife in Goma and Kinshasa. Any transmission of the disease into Zambia could prove catastrophic for already overwhelmed humanitarian agencies, which are scouring for medicine, food and shelter, among other needs, amid fears that casualties could increase. Cholera is already rampant in Zambia.

“We have over 200 families, mainly malnourished children and pregnant women as well as men who are yet to be accommodated in our camps, but we don’t have enough logistics to meet the growing needs of more food and medicines to cater for everyone,” UNHCR spokeswoman Mirriam Malunga said in a recent media statement.

Zambia’s home affairs minister, Stephen Kampyongo, recently called on all warring parties in the DRC to resolve their differences, telling journalists that Zambia was receiving on average 100 to 150 refugees daily. During the U.N. General Assembly in New York last September, Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu, appealed for humanitarian assistance from the international community to help the refugees.

Getting that aid amid the swirl of corruption allegations is proving difficult. The UNHCR has so far received only $13.6 million — less than a quarter of the aid amount it needs — to support Zambia’s growing crisis.

Some countries are stepping up. Germany has pledged to contribute more than $800,000 toward the UNHCR response in Zambia and Angola — another major recipient of refugees — in 2018. German Ambassador to Zambia Achim Burkart cited the “common experience of welcoming refugees fleeing from conflict” that Germany and Zambia share while he announced the aid. His embassy has also donated assorted items worth $60,000 to the Congolese asylum seekers at the Kenani transit center, making the German government one of the first bilateral partners to respond to the calls for assistance.

That aid is important, but Zambia and Congolese refugees like Mukendi will likely need more to ride out the crisis. “I wake up every day telling myself that this is a temporary situation and that things will get better soon,” Mukendi says. “I hope so.”

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