The Current State of Congolese Refugees in New England

Historical Background

The term “Congolese” refers to a person who is from either the Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Middle or Central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, was formerly known as Zaire. The Republic of Congo, or simply the Congo, is a smaller country northwest of the DRC.

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

Congo was colonized in the late 19th century, when the Congo Free State was officially recognized by European powers in the year 1885. Belgians controlled the area for 75 years until the country was granted independence in 1960. That year, nationalist Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister but was overthrown within months by Congolese soldiers led by Joseph Désiré Mobutu.

Another crisis arose in 1964 when rebels threatened to take over the country. Mobutu was forced to ask for help, and European, United States and Belgian troops defeated what became known as the Simba Rebellion.

Just one year later, in 1965, Mobutu declared himself president of Congo, and was officially elected to the position in 1970. In 1971, Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire.

In the late 1970s and 80s, opposition parties and rebel groups began to gain power, but were suppressed by Mobutu until 1990, when the president finally agreed to a multi-party system called the Third Republic, complete with elections and a constitution. In response, soldiers looted Kinshasa, leading to the evacuation of over 20,000 foreign nationals. In 1992, a gathering called the Sovereign National Conference elected an official chairman (Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo) and prime minister (Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba).

A new government emerged in 1994, a union of the Third Republic system and an opposition government created by Mobutu. This new government, called the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT), placed Mobutu as head of state.

The First Congo War occurred between 1996 and 1997, after the genocide in Rwanda spilled into Zaire. Hutu forces began to use refugee camps in Zaire as camps for invasion against Rwanda, and soon allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire. Supported by Rwanda and Uganda and led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Tutsi militias in the country (who became known as the AFDL) formed to defend themselves and rebelled against Mobutu. In 1997, Kabila took over the capital Kinshasa, declared himself president, and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Second Congo War followed in 1998, when the new leader Kabila lost his supporters and was attacked by a rebel movement led by Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba’s rebels, known as The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), threatened Kabila’s reign and drew six African governments into the conflict.  Joseph Kabila took over for his father after the latter’s assassination in 2001 and brokered a peace deal, dividing territories and sharing power, thus ending the Second Congo War in 2003.

A transitional government was established in 2003 until 2006, when Congo held its first multi-party elections. After Kabila took only 45 percent of the vote (despite a clear majority), fighting occurred in the capital of Kinshasa, which resulted in the death of 16 citizens. A new election was held that October, and Kabila won this time with 70 percent of the vote.

In December 2011, Kabila was re-elected President of the DRC, despite some official tallies which showed a majority for the opposition candidate Étienne Tshisekedi. The credibility of the vote was questioned by the Carter Center, yet held until 2012 when ethnic Tutsi soldiers mutinied against the government.  The rebel group called “March 23 Movement,” also known as M23, took control of Goma in November 2012, the third largest city in the DRC with a population of one million.

As 2013 begins, the DRC government and M23 rebels have engaged in a dialogue to resolve their differences.

The Resettlement Process

By definition, refugees are those unable or unwilling to return to their native country because of persecution or a fear of persecution. Refugees are differentiated from asylum seekers only by location of where the person is when he or she applies to reside in the United States. (If a person is outside the United States when considered for residency, he or she is a refugee. If the person is on United States soil at the time, he or she qualifies as an asylum seeker.)

The process of resettlement is complicated but well regulated. A refugee begins his or her journey by seeking temporary asylum outside his or her native country, settling in a refugee camp or a neighboring country. According to the Refugee Health Assistance Center, at this time the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) works to determine if the person is eligible for refugee status.

Resettlement is always the last option for a refugee, and is very rare: on average, refugees live in camps for 17 years, and only one percent of the world’s refugee population gets resettled. If the person or group of people qualify for refugee status, the local refugee service center works to prepare case files and securities clearances, set up interviews with a United States immigration officer, conducts medical evaluations.

Once in the country, the U.S. Department of State provides placement services for the first 90 days after arrival, carried out by local affiliate agencies. Depending on resources, these agencies provide support extending past the 90-day window.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead agency for the resettlement process. The ORR works with the affiliate agency in the weeks before the refugees arrive, setting up housing and filling out the necessary paperwork. The agencies pick up the refugees at the airport and get them settled into their new homes. They then provide 30 days of core services, such as support for social security applications, English as a second language (ESL) enrollment, medical checkups, and basic lessons in culture.

After one month the government provides a grant program, an alternative to welfare. If after six months the refugee still doesn’t have a job, that person is referred to the Department of Health and Human Services. Normally after eight months, cash assistance runs out. Refugees can apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year in the United States.

Congo’s Refugee Situation

In the 1960s, Congolese came to the United States for mostly educational reasons, and emigration continued after Mobutu chose the United States as a place for refuge in the 1970s. Many of those that came to the United States for education in these two decades have been forced to stay because of instability back home. War refugees from the Congo began to come to the United States in the 1990s.

By the year 2000, a total of 5,488 Americans were descended from Congo. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the five states with the largest populations of refugees from Middle Africa (defined as the states of Burundi, Central African Republic, the DRC, and Rwanda) in 2000 were Maryland, California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. These five states, combined, constituted 47.5 percent of the total foreign-born number from Middle Africa in the United States.

Because of the fighting between the M23 rebel group and the DRC government, the current humanitarian situation in the DRC is grim. As of November 2012, more than 2.4 million Congolese were internally displaced, with over 460,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

The tide of refugees from the Congo, although less significant numerically compared to the numbers of Iraqis or Bhutanese coming to the United States, is significant. According to Migration Information Source, the year of 2010 saw 3,174 immigrants arrive from the DRC, and 977 in 2011. The United States’ Congolese community will grow up to 20 percent in the next two to three years, according to Larry Yungk, the Senior Resettlement Officer for UNHCR.

New England Congolese Community

The Congolese community in New England is small. The Migration Policy Institute has stated that in 2000, the population of refugees from Middle Africa in New England was 2,426. According to Statemaster, from 2000 to 2004, 64 refugees arrived in New England from the DRC: 14 refugees to New Hampshire, 31 to Vermont, 11 to Maine, and four each to Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Migration Information Source ranked the DRC at #21 of the largest 30 countries to send refugees to the United States between the years of 1983 to 2004, with a total of 3,191 refugees. Boston ranks as #11 in the top metropolitan areas for refugee resettlement during this time period, with over 36,232 refugees from around the world.

As of the year 2000, Massachusetts held the largest percentage of refugees from Middle Africa of all the New England states, with 1,580 refugees. Connecticut served as the home for 356 Middle Africans; Rhode Island, surprisingly, had 282 foreign born from Middle Africa, and 111 lived in New Hampshire. The smallest Middle African populations in New England were in Maine (65 residents) and Vermont (32 residents).

The population of Congolese refugees and immigrants in New England largely reflects the immigrant population of these states as a whole. A recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies in 2010 ranked Massachusetts as the seventh-largest foreign-born resident population in the United States, with over 15 percent of the total population being foreign-born.

Another interesting statistic comes from the Center for Immigration Studies, which has tracked how long foreign-born residents are residing in New England states. The smaller populations of foreign-born seem to stay the longest: the foreign-born residents of Maine, for example, stay an average of 26.1 years, and the foreign-born population of Vermont has stayed an average of 22.7 years. The two lowest averages for time-spent in-state were Connecticut (average of 19.9 years), and Massachusetts (average of 18.9 years).

More resources on the history of the Congo here.

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