The Challenges And Experiences Of Congolese Refugees Living In Durban, South Africa

When discussing the topic of forced migration, it is imperative to understand it is not a hypothetical matter, it is a real issue that affects millions of people across the globe. With this being said, there must be an understanding of who is affected, including the groups of displaced individuals, as well as the urban regions hosting these migrants. There is no specific reason that individuals flee their homes, but many displaced migrants are simply seeking a better life free of conflict and humanitarian crises. There is a large number of forced migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who seek refuge in Durban, South Africa.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the DRC has seen years of political unrest and violence, following the civil war that ended in 2003, though tension and fighting still prevail primarily in the Eastern areas of the country. The UNHRC also states that “Since 2016, a new wave of violence also affected the DRC’s Kasai region, a vast area in the south and center of the country”. Along with the fear of civil unrest, World Vision states that many individuals in DRC – an estimated over 900,000 – have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries as a result of food insecurity and the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak that began in May 2018. Furthermore, the UNHCR also notes that many citizens returned to the Kasai region where they face a disturbing number of human rights violations some of which include, “physical mutilation, killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention in inhumane conditions”. Poor living conditions and human rights abuses have left citizens no other choice but to seek refuge elsewhere in hope of a better life, though the UNHRC has estimated that an alarming five million individuals have become internally displaced in the DRC between 2017 and 2019. 

South Africa is home to many Congolese migrants and the urban region of Durban houses many incoming and settled individuals. Within an urban context, this move comes with the potential of many new opportunities for DRC refugees. According to the UNHCR, “Under South African law, refugees enjoy many of the rights of the country’s citizens, including the right to travel, to education and to earn a living”. The UNHCR, as well as many government and non-government organizations, have assisted Congolese migrants with initiatives to ensure a smooth transition into their new urban environment. This is exemplified by the initiative funded by the UNHCR and Oxfam Australia, which put in place 51 “home-base” care centres in Durban, that assists in caring for young refugees while their parents work. This has allowed women to access employment without the fear of having insufficient childcare for their young children. Moreover, social settings and family and friends play a very important role in adapting to a new country. Xenophobia and social exclusion are common occurrences when new migrants move into a host country, this is no different in South Africa. The UNHCR states that “The arrival of refugees in their new host country, such as South Africa, worsens the xenophobic attitudes which may already exist”. As a result, social communities become a very important aspect of the urban region. The UNHCR further explains that “the refugee community revives and strengthens both the informal and formal social networks in order to survive and adapt themselves in their new setting”. Though these are trying times for forced migrants, who are often subject to xenophobia and discrimination from native citizens, family and friends become a vital safety net.

Of the numerous challenges that displaced migrants face in this region, access to health care is a substantial problem that Congolese refugees face in Durban. A study regarding the barriers that DRC migrants face in this urban region revealed that refugees face medical xenophobia during their encounters with health care workers, often due to language barriers and documentation. These barriers also included the use of ethnic slurs, discriminatory practices, and, in extreme cases, the denial of medical treatment. Many Congolese migrants in Durban have faced extreme forms of discrimination from healthcare professionals and have encountered numerous barriers to receiving proper treatment and diagnosis.

Additionally, the livelihood of these migrants is often altered due to moving countries and attempting to assimilate into a new environment. Marital conflict is a growing issue among Congolese refugees in Durban according to a study published by the Journal of Family Issues. The authors found, “With increased migration, families are struggling to adjust to the host country’s lifestyle, while maintaining family cultural values and norms and this creates tension and frustration at the family level, thereby increasing marital conflicts”. Host countries play an important role in marital conflict, as different views on gender roles in marriage can vary from region to region. With this being said, a host country often becomes a large influence on these beliefs. Consequently, adapting to new countries and their customs often creates tension among couples and families, this can be challenging for many Congolese migrants in Durban.

Durban, South Africa, is home to numerous displaced migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. These individuals have fled their home country to better their lives, and though many gain new opportunities, others often face challenges in their new urban region. One will never fully comprehend the lived experiences of the Congolese refugees, but there is hope that in their new urban region, they will experience a life free of political conflict, humanitarian issues, and violence. 


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