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Consequences of Interconnected Poverty: Angola and The DRC
The latest story in a seemingly endless news cycle about violence and mining in central Africa focuses on the neighboring countries of Angola and The DRC (the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Both countries are mineral rich, but this story, along with many others, is rooted in the poverty that resulted from the exploitation of these resources by Western countries. 

The Violence Between Angola and the DRC

How did Angola come to host such vast numbers of DRC migrants and refugees that a humanitarian crisis was possible? In recent years, many Congolese diamond miners have crossed the border between Angola and the DRC to take advantage of Angola’s mining industry. In the DRC, the supply chain and mines are more government regulated, creating a lower profit margin for miners. Apparently, Angola’s president, João Lourenço, recently decided that, because the government was not financially benefitting from these migrations, the Congolese must leave.

This has catalyzed a series of violent expulsions by Angola’s military and police about which The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNCHR) has expressed concern. Congolese have been murdered, raped, looted, burned out of their homes, separated from their children and stranded. The Kasai Province of the DRC, which is on the country’s northeastern border with Angola, has become overcrowded with more than 200,00 of expelled migrants. The UNCHR cautions that such an influx to an already unstable region could cause a humanitarian crisis.

A Brief History of Angola

Angola and the DRC have similar, intertwined stories of colonial rule, civil wars and poverty that have been integral in creating the current problem. The Portuguese established a settlement at Luanda Bay in 1576, which eventually became the colony of Angola. Wealth from natural resources desired in the West and the Portuguese involvement in the Atlantic slave trade fueled the colony at the expense of its native people.

A revolution in Portugal allowed Angolans to gain its independence in 1975. However, leaders of different nationalist movements within Angola clashed, leading to a civil war that, with some interludes, ravished the country from 1975 to 2002 with an estimated 1.5 million Angolan lives lost and another 4 million Angolans displaced.

While the end of the civil war allowed Angola to focus on harnessing its natural resources, the country’s history still manifests in extreme poverty. The improving economy has mostly benefitted the wealthy while 20 percent of the population remains unemployed and five million Angolans live in slum conditions.

The diamond mining industry that the economy depends on was originally created for European gain, meaning that safety standards for Angolans were never established. In Africa as a whole, an estimated one million miners earn less than one dollar a day, a wage below the extreme poverty line. Besides having few wage or labor regulations in Angola, an estimated 46 percent of miners are between the ages of five and 16. It is a sad irony that the industry the economy needs fuels poverty and oppression.

A Brief History of the DRC

Angola and the DRC have followed a similar developmental pattern, and therefore, experience poverty similarly. The DRC has also progressed from colonial rule to civil wars and violence, creating poverty that manifests in a growing gap between the rich and poor and an economy based on unjust mining conditions. This led to the violence and conflict between the two countries that are so prevalent in the current news cycle.

The area that now constitutes the DRC dates back to The Berlin West African Conference in 1884-45, where the Great Powers of Europe at the time officially divided the land, making their own colonial boundaries that ignored tribal and ethnic distinctions. After the division, Belgium’s King Leopold II officially began exploiting the DRC’s natural resources and its inhabitants with slave labor.

The DRC became independent in 1960. However, the instability of the new government and continued attempts of outside involvement from Belgium led to the Congo Crisis, essentially five years of violence and political instability. Another civil war, involving Angola and most of the surrounding area in what some term Africa’s World War, consumed the region from 1997-2003.

Because these wars were rooted in the colonial past, infrastructure and stability were lacking. An estimated six out of seven people in the DRC live on less than $1.25 a day. Approximately 2.9 million Congolese have been internally displaced by the violence. Since Belgium focused on the abundant natural resources, jobs like mining became the main vocation for Congolese. Additionally, Belgium neglected to oversee education in the DRC, leaving many unequipped for jobs outside the mines. The DRC once supplied a fourth of the world’s diamond supply, but that number has dropped significantly in recent years, in favor of other resources like cobalt, leaving the remaining diamond miners even less prosperous.

Interconnected Poverty Between Angola and the DRC

Angola and the DRC have become linked as these DRC miners seek opportunities across the border. The countries’ colonial pasts have made them dependent on natural resources as part of their attempts to combat poverty and recover from civil war. But, in this case, attempts to financially recover have led to more violence as both the Angolan government and the DRC’s miners strive to earn enough money from diamond sales.

There is a political undercurrent as well due to the DRC’s President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down since his maximum constitutional mandate ended in 2016. Interconnected government concerns due to the close proximity and a historical tendency for government conflict to become violent have been part of Angola and the DRC’s relationship for years.

In Africa’s World War, Angola supported a rebel coalition that removed DRC military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power in 1997, assisted the DRC in combating rebel movements from Rwanda and Uganda in 1998 and supported President Joseph Kabila at the start of his term. This war caused many refugees to seek asylum in Angola in the first place, and fear of another such conflict if Kabila does not step down, seems to be reverberating in the current violent expulsion.

However, based on the economic growth seen since the war’s end, the potential exists for two countries to improve their poverty rates. Angola has seen an average annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increase of 8.68 percent with the help of foreign investment and high oil prices. Although in the past two years there have been GDP decreases, the overall trend is positive. The DRC’s GDP has also averaged increases since 2002, although it has fluctuated more. These growth rates reveal hope for those living in poverty in Angola and the DRC if the governments can avoid further violence and instability and begin to combat gaps between the rich and poor.

– Charlotte Preston

Photo: Flickr

Goodwill Ambassador Yao ChenWhile mostly unknown to American audiences, Chinese actress, activist, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen is one of the most influential celebrities in China and arguably in the world. Her Goodwill Ambassadorship was recently renewed for her tireless efforts on behalf of displaced persons.

The daughter of a train driver and a postal worker, Yao Chen rose to prominence as one of China’s greatest contemporary actresses, with roles ranging from action flicks to rom-coms. Her popularity extends to social media, specifically Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) where she has more followers than the population of the United Kingdom.

Chen began working with the UNHCR in 2010 before officially becoming Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen in 2013. She joined the UNHCR on multiple field visits to refugee host nations, including the Philippines, Thailand, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Pakistan. In these visits, she has met with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar.

“I am deeply touched by how refugees keep their dignity and how poverty does not destroy their kindness.” Chen said.

As the first Chinese UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Chen used her influence by bringing attention to refugee issues to the Chinese-speaking world.

And she has had impressive results. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of donations to UNHCR from mainland China tripled.

Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen earned international acclaim for her work on behalf of refugees and for her efforts addressing domestic issues in China.

Forbes magazine deemed the 37-year-old actress “China’s Angelina Jolie” and placed her on their list of the world’s most powerful women. She was also one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi renewed Chen’s ambassadorship for two more years during his inaugural visit to China. Grandi discussed China’s ability to assist displaced persons through South-South Cooperation, a collaborative action among countries of the South. He also spoke about the Chinese government’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative, a controversial $5 trillion spending plan in infrastructure across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

In the next two years, Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen will continue advocating for refugees by highlighting issues they face and making their plight seem less distant to the Chinese people. In Chen’s own words, “In this global village, we are all connected and inter-dependent in one way or another.”

(Here is another reason to love Yao Chen. Her nickname for her son is Xiao Tudou, which translates to “little potato.”)

Sean Newhouse

Photo: Google

Refugees in Malaysia
Due to its booming economy and multi-cultural society, Malaysia is a beacon in Southeast Asia for economic migrants and refugees alike. As the refugee crisis continues, Malaysia grapples with its institutions, history and policies towards migrants. Discussed below are some basics about refugees in Malaysia.

10 Alarming Facts About Refugees in Malaysia

  1. As of the end of April 2017, there are about 150,662 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. Of these refugees, about 89 percent are persecuted ethnic groups from Myanmar, comprised of Rohingyas, Chins, Myanmar Muslims, Rakhines and Arakanese.
  2. About 11 percent of registered refugees are from other countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. About 67 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers are men, and 33 percent are women. About 36,331 refugees are children under the age of 18.
  3. In Malaysia, refugees are not distinguished from undocumented migrants and are at risk of deportation or detention. They lack access to legal employment and formal education. Refugees are able to access public and private healthcare, but this access is often hindered by the cost of treatment and language barriers.
  4. Because refugees have no access to legal employment, they tend to work difficult or dangerous jobs that the rest of the population does not wish to take. Refugee workers often face exploitation by employers who take advantage of their situation, paying them low wages or no wages at all.
  5. There are no refugee camps in Malaysia; refugees live in cities and towns across the country in low-cost apartments or houses. These accommodations are often overcrowded, and it’s not uncommon for several families or dozens of individuals to share a living space.
  6. Malaysia is neither party to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 protocol. Malaysia is also not a party to the 1954 and 1961 U.N. Statelessness Convention. Malaysia lacks a legal framework for managing refugees, so the UNHCR conducts all activities concerning the registration, documentation and status determination of refugees. The Malaysian Government cooperates with UNHCR in addressing refugee issues.
  7. UNCHR began operations in Malaysia in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees began to arrive by boat in Malaysia and other neighboring countries. From 1975 to 1996, UNCHR assisted the Malaysian government in helping and protecting Vietnamese refugees. Over those two decades, more than 240,000 Vietnamese were resettled, and about 9,000 persons returned home to Vietnam.
  8. In the past, Malaysia has opened its doors to vulnerable populations through government programs. In 1991, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad championed a scholarship program for Bosnian Muslims after hearing the Serbs announce an ethnic cleansing campaign. However, they referred to participants as “guests” rather than refugees.
  9. As of 2015, the Malaysian government has pledged to shelter 3,000 Syrian refugees. Syrians will be given temporary residence passes, permission to work and permission to attend school. Though about 1,100 Syrian refugees are already in Malaysia, this program seeks to resettle more new refugees.
  10. As of March 2017, Malaysia has developed a pilot program to allow 300 Rohingya refugees to work legally within the country. Successful applicants will be placed with selected companies in manufacturing and agricultural industries. This project was instated to prevent forced labor and exploitation, as well to give refugees necessary skills and income to make a living before potential relocation.


The lives of refugees in Malaysia are often lived in the shadows, with a constant risk of deportation or detention. Refugees are most vulnerable, however, because their home country is too dangerous to return to. This is why the registration of refugees is essential to their safety, be it through UNCHR or the initiatives of the government itself.

Hannah Seitz

Photo: Flickr

planning-refugee-settlements
Innovative new technologies are changing the way commissioners design shelters for refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has partnered with Stanford University and Ennead, a prominent firm of U.S. architects, to create a new way of designing refugee settlements. This new method accomplishes design prep work in advance, allowing settlements to be mapped out to specifically cater to the region’s needs.

The UNHCR estimated that in 2011, 42 million people were displaced from their homes, 10.5 million of which were refugees who lived in camps. Three years later, that number has topped 50 million. On average, refugees spend 17 years in asylum and camps are increasingly becoming long-term places of residence.

Because of the growing number of refugees and the changing nature of the settlements, the UNHCR decided to “look critically at the process of planning and designing camps.”

UNHCR met with architects from Ennead Laboratories at Stanford University, and this collaboration has turned into a three-year venture with innovative results. The project lead to the creation of an innovative settlement mapping toolkit.

When refugees are pouring over borders, desperately seeking asylum, there isn’t time to labor over designing a refugee encampment. The toolkit developed by Ennead labs gives governments the ability to make a smart choice about where to set up refugee camps.

According to UNHCR’s Monica Noro, “The tool aims to provide more information about whether those sites being proposed are viable or not, and whether or not another option eventually could have a better impact, not just on the life of the refugees but also on the life of the local population.”

Using data maps, Google Earth topography and 3-D printers, proposed camps can be presented in a tangible, easy-to-visualize manner.

The New York Times described the change in camp mapping as “a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that clearly happens even in desperate places –people leaving their stamp wherever they live, making space they occupy their own.”

The Zatari Refugee Camp in Jordan is an example of such a space. Just miles from the border of war-torn Syria, this camp was designed as an informal city, complete with neighborhoods and a growing economy.

Zatari even boasts its own pizza delivery service and a travel agency with pickup service at the airport.

When refugees are living in camps, they are more likely to make a smoother transition from extreme poverty into their new lives.

Smarter planning of settlements assures that refugees are not a burden on the host country, but rather a well-planned asset.

– Grace Flaherty

Sources: IRIN News, NY Times