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The Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has endured decades of conflict and insecurity, at times driving significant waves of out-migration. In our research we focus on people from Eastern DRC not because they are under-researched but because much of this research centres on their plight as refugees, with limited work that seeks to understand their migration patterns as a whole. We aim to look more widely at the contributions of urbanisation processes, proximity and differing migration regimes towards mobility in the region. Rather than reduce a complex mix of rationales for mobility to one major stream (refugees), we believe that it is important to acknowledge the complex rationales that inform and give rise to the possibility of multiple and varied movements.

In our research we’ve been looking at the mobility patterns of people from Eastern DRC who are living in three very different urban centres in the Great Lakes region: Kampala, the capital city of neighbouring Uganda, Eldoret in Kenya, one of the largest towns in the Rift Valley, and Lubumbashi in the southern-most tip of DRC in Katanga, the country’s wealthiest province. We found that while conflict has generated complex reasons for migrating in the pursuit of livelihoods, security and stability, the flux and movement of people also takes place as a result of economic and other opportunities, marriage, education or strategic allegiances as well as conflict and insecurity due to rival political regimes. Population movements in the Great Lakes region have long been testament to porous barriers, shifting political loyalties and changing geo-political ascendancies, as well as to conflict.

Everyday drivers of movement

We conducted our fieldwork, which centred on how Eastern Congolese perceive mobility of previous generations and within their own lives, in 2013 and 2014. We surveyed over 500 people, asking them to map their mobility patterns and in doing so sought to understand the role of three everyday drivers of movement: livelihoods, education and family formation or dissolution. With smaller groups we carried out in-depth qualitative and key informant interviews, and asked 15 people to take part in PhotoVoice – a participatory research tool in which they took photographs of their daily lives and co-analysed the significance of these images and representations of life and mobility in Kampala, Eldoret and Lubumbashi. Our blog title, ‘We Search for Life’, reflects what we heard in all three sites from different participants (and indeed saw in the photographs). It refers to the quest for a better life, health, livelihoods, prospects (business, education, family) as well as survival and an existence free from the consequences of conflict and insecurity. This search for life speaks not only about escaping situations of violence but also about strategies to cope with a paralyzed economic system, with few job and business opportunities due to intermittent periods of conflict and access to a myriad of opportunities often within reach just across the border.

The shadow of conflict and insecurity often obscures the historical root of today’s migration flows from Eastern DRC – those migration patterns that have long criss-crossed the Great Lakes region. The people we interviewed tended to describe mobility of older generations as circular movements that were part of people´s everyday lives. Internal migration was more common than international migration in the life stories of our respondents’ parents, across all three sites. Our interviewees also described the migration of previous generations as rather short-term projects of people living in rural and urban environments. Rural mobility was related to stockbreeding and farming activities, whilst urban to urban mobility was mainly linked to business opportunities. Current migration in Lubumbashi, Eldoret and Kampala is predominantly urban to urban, although in Kampala the significant 40% of people coming from rural areas suggests other factors play a role there. Also striking was that while a similar percentage of interviewees in Eldoret and Lubumbashi expressed the desire to stay in their current city of residence, in Kampala only 7% of respondents wished to remain. The majority of Kampala respondents (over 67%) in fact aspired to move outside Africa.

While our interviewees see the mobility of previous generations as short-term and everyday, by contrast they perceive current migration as a much longer-term relocation mostly driven by conflict rather than by economic activities. Despite these more tragic understandings of current mobility in the region, our interviewees’ own migration trajectories do still involve more ‘ordinary’ activities. They describe long- and short- term movements to visit family members, to study, to work, to import clothes, shoes, body oils, house building equipment, cement, food or fish and the export mineral trade in gold and diamonds.

‘Mixed migration’ combines forced and voluntary mobility

Those in Kampala, strikingly, tended to have only one single experience and driver of mobility – conflict. Trajectories involve a myriad of destinations including the East Africa Community countries Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, other African countries – South Africa, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Botswana – and even further away to Dubai, China and Singapore. The observations of one 32-year-old male in Eldoret illuminate the increasing attention drawn by scholars to the phenomenon of ‘mixed migration’, to highlight the combination of ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ trajectories that span conflict, the quest for livelihoods, environment and other factors (see Crush et al. 2015 and Van Hear et al. 2009):

(…) some of the people in my locality who had lived in Kenya and they would speak of how good life is in Kenya. Even my own grandfather had been to Kenya many times. He was a businessman and he would go to Kampala and up to Kenya to buy goods and then went back to sell them in Congo. So for quite a while I planned on how I would come and work in Kenya; (…) earlier it was hard to get a stable job in Congo because of frequent violence. I even tried to open a small tailoring shop while I was there but it was broken into during war and everything was stolen. So I decided that I don’t want to stay in such a place so I started doing business by getting goods from Kampala and selling them back at home. The business was doing well but again the market in Congo was not stable because of war. It meant that sometimes I would come to Uganda to buy something but while am there war erupts and then I am left stuck with the goods with nowhere to sell. So I decided to come and try my luck in Kenya!

Our respondents found it difficult to imagine future mobilities. As Pierre put it ‘(…) the current situation of war shatters all the plans. If there are plans for development, they cannot be realized during conflict periods. It’s only when peace prevails that you can execute your plans’. Safety, political stability and the availability of opportunities are often the necessary conditions to consider return to Eastern DRC. But these are not sufficient alone; other factors considered are the capabilities to return to have a good life, which relates to land ownership, the presence of family members in Eastern DRC, level of education, having a business plan, or the physical mobility of the elderly.

Contradictory infrastructures foster and constrain mobility in times of conflict and insecurity

Our research reveals how crucial is the role of infrastructures in conflict and insecurity – infrastructures of protection and infrastructures that enhance livelihoods. This supports the arguments of others who stress the value of loosening restrictions on mobility and pathways to integration as a viable route to empower vulnerable communities (see Long & Crisp 2010; Kuch 2016). For example, Congolese are granted prima facie refugee status in Uganda, which also grants freedom of mobility to self-settle and work anywhere in the country. This is not the case in Kenya, where Congolese are not granted prima facie refugee status in a country that also requires refugees to reside in camps. The domination of Congolese in the cargo and petroleum goods transportation sector by delivering to Eastern DRC from Eldoret provides a lucrative niche that acts as a driver for further mobility flows. This reflects Eastern DRC’s regional routes to market orientated to the nearest port terminus at Mombasa, Kenya. However, the fact that DRC is outside the East Africa Community (EAC) means that Congolese face an expensive mobility regime. Each time they travel between DRC and Kenya they pay a $50 exit visa from DRC, a $50 entry visa to Uganda and a $50 entry visa to Kenya as they make their way along the main transport artery section of the Trans-Africa Highway that terminates in Mombasa. They see joining EAC as a solution that would provide access to livelihoods and strengthen their rights and pathways to mobility and regional integration.

Our participants’ search for ‘Life’ can be traced through complex, at times contradictory trajectories. Congolese in our three cities of research show they can occupy and claim life projects that, although they are conditioned by realities and memories of conflict and insecurity, are open to different configurations and possibilities for security, integration and self-development. In their search for ‘Life’ they reference past experiences, private and institutional intermediaries that facilitate or hinder migration. Documentation, rights and identity positions play an important role at key junctures of the life course as they seek to balance agency and aspirations within what is possible. In focusing on mobilities and infrastructure in our work we don’t in any sense want to obscure the very real violence that this community continues to struggle against and through. But in moving beyond the narrow conceptualisation of the mobility of people from Eastern DR Congo as solely linked to conflict, we hope to deepen understanding of migration in this complex region of the African Great Lakes.

About the research project

Mobility in the African Great Lakes was a two-year project carried out between 2012 and 2014 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Uganda, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. The project’s focus on everyday patterns of movement in this region has contributed greatly to an understanding of how social, cultural and urbanisation dynamics intersect with individual agency and material constraints, which regulate access to mobility for aspirant migrants in today’s globalised world.

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

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