MSF staff support survivors of sexual violence in Kanyaruchinya, eastern DRC. DRC, 2024. © MSF/Marion Molinari

One of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises is taking place in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Canada and others must respond 

Amid a daunting number of high-profile international emergencies consuming global attention in recent months, a massive humanitarian crisis has been causing widespread suffering in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past two years, seemingly out of sight for much of the world.  

Since March 2022, an estimated 1.6 million people who live near the country’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda have been displaced by a resurgent conflict involving a number of different armed groups. The immediate cause for this was the re-emergence of a group known as M23 in late 2021, which since then has been fighting with other armed groups, including the DRC’s national armed forces, and gaining significant amounts of territory. This escalation of violence marks a new phase in a complex pre-existing conflict that had already driven many more people across eastern DRC from their homes, resulting in an estimated 5.6 million people overall who have been displaced by armed groups in the eastern provinces – including 2.5 million just in the province of North Kivu, which has been the epicentre of the current fighting.  

A failure of the international community to respond 

The high levels of violence and displacement taking place in North Kivu (and in the neighbouring provinces of South Kivu and Ituri) are already a major crisis. The lack of any kind of adequate international response to the situation now facing civilians in eastern DRC has created an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe that now goes well beyond the conflict alone.  

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was already providing emergency humanitarian medical assistance across eastern DRC before the recent escalation in the conflict. In 2022, MSF teams 2022 significantly scaled up activities to meet the massive increase in humanitarian needs. We continue to directly witness the impact of both the fighting and the failure of the world to respond. In 2023, MSF carried out 1.5 million medical consultations in North and South Kivu, including 557,000 emergency consultations under new programs launched in response to the evolving crisis. 

What we are seeing is a shocking reminder of the international community’s apparent lack of interest in an emergency that is causing immense suffering and putting millions of lives at risk. People fleeing violence have arrived in huge numbers to both formal and informal sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs) across North Kivu, including hundreds of thousands who have sought shelter in IDP camps outside the city of Goma, the provincial capital, where many international NGOs and UN agencies maintain offices. This is precisely the kind of massive emergency that the international humanitarian system – which is made up by many of those very same NGOs and agencies – exists to respond to by providing water, latrines, food distributions, shelter, protection and other essentials.  

Lack of a humanitarian response is adding to people’s suffering 

And yet the living conditions in these sites is appalling, with little to no access to clean water for drinking or hygiene, insufficient and overfilled latrines, deeply inadequate access to food, and high exposure to violence, especially sexual violence. The situation is even worse in the many displacement sites farther away from Goma, where many more people remain confined with nowhere else to go, and where MSF often finds itself virtually alone in trying to meet humanitarian needs.  

These conditions lead directly to what MSF’s teams are witnessing first-hand through our medical activities: increases in malnutrition, especially for children under the age of five; outbreaks of deadly diseases including cholera and measles, exacerbated by lack of access to clean water; and people requiring care for trauma caused by violence. Most alarming of all have been the huge levels of sexual violence taking place not only across the conflict zones in eastern DRC but in the camps where people have been seeking shelter. In 2023, MSF teams provided medical care for more than 25,000 survivors of sexual violence in DRC; at one point last May, MSF teams were treating 70 cases of SV per day just in the Goma camps, a number that is assumed to be much higher in reality when unreported cases are taken into account. 

Too little, too late 

All of this leads directly back to the missing humanitarian response to this emergency, despite the presence of many agencies whose responsibility it is to meet these kinds of needs. The failure is not with those organizations, many of whom, alongside MSF, are doing whatever they can with the resources they have. The problem is a lack of funding: the international humanitarian system, including the UN agencies who are meant to lead these responses, depend almost entirely on donor governments – including Canada’s – to finance their humanitarian assistance activities. When a new and acute emergency such as this arises, it requires an additional allocation of resources, so as not to draw away from all the other urgently needed activities already taking place. 

That funding, however, has not been forthcoming, and people in eastern DRC have been essentially left to fend for themselves. There have been some attempts at scaling up the humanitarian response around Goma, but even when taking into account the complexity of the context (which is taking place amid a violent and dynamic conflict), it has mostly been too little and too late, even as needs continue to grow. So far, the international community has failed to treat this as the urgent humanitarian crisis that it is.  

Canada’s support is needed 

That’s why MSF has been publicly calling on Canada to prioritize this emergency. Last October thousands of our supporters sent letters to Members of Parliament and government officials asking that Canada immediately allocate additional humanitarian assistance funding to this crisis. In January, we launched a Parliamentary petition asking Canada to increase its humanitarian assistance for DRC in 2024 over last year’s levels, in order to help aid agencies meet the additional needs. We have also noted that as a country with a Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada in particular should prioritize a crisis in which women and girls are at such significant risk, especially as a result of sexual and gender-based violence.  

Helpfully, Canada does indeed seem to be paying some attention. On April 11, Minister of International Development Ahmed Hussen announced a series of Canadian funding initiatives in DRC, including $27-million for “humanitarian partners to help meet the life-saving needs of crisis-affected populations.” But it remains unclear whether this will amount to the full increase in additional humanitarian funding this crisis requires (the federal government has until June to formally reply to MSF’s Parliamentary petition). And until not just Canada but other donor governments acknowledge the extent of this emergency, and take the necessary steps to address it, the people of eastern DRC will continue to experience a double crisis, suffering from a lack of access to basic needs such as food, water and shelter in addition to the traumas inflicted by conflict itself.  

MSF can’t do it alone 

For its part, MSF – which as an independent organization funded by private donations does not depend on governments to finance its activities – will continue to scale up our response to meet whatever needs we can in eastern DRC. (Although MSF does receive some funding from the Canadian government for its work in other parts of DRC, in order to maintain a widespread recognition of our independence, neutrality and impartiality in such a conflict-affected context, we don’t accept any government funding for our work in North or South Kivu).  

This includes providing care for wounded civilians, therapeutic feeding programs for children experiencing malnutrition, and treatment for survivors of sexual violence. We are also delivering water and sanitation services, and responding to outbreaks of cholera, measles and other diseases. 

But we can’t do it alone. We – and, more importantly, the affected civilians in eastern DRC – urgently need the world’s help. We cannot turn our backs on so many people deprived of basic human needs for survival. It is time for Canada and other governments to act.