UNHCR to give refugees $4m to go back home

Wednesday March 1 2017

Rwandan refugees are being urged to return home. PHOTO | FILE

Rwandan refugees are being urged to return home. PHOTO | FILE 

By Tom Matoke and Ivan Mugisha

Rwanda could this year receive the largest number of returnees — refugees who fled the 1994 genocide — in a UN-funded repatriation programme that offers cash to every adult and child who chooses to return home voluntarily.

Supported by a budget of $4 million, the UN has agreed to offer a cash incentive to Rwandan refugees who are currently living in exile around the world, but especially in the DRC, with those opting to return home before the December 2017 deadline will each receive $250 for adults and $150 for children.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is targeting 20,000 Rwandan refugees in DR Congo with the cash scheme, in the hope that it will persuade them to return home before the deadline, after which they will no longer be considered refugees by Rwanda.

The cash programme began in 2016 as a pilot project and has already benefited 403 returning families. In two months — November and December last year — the UNHCR disbursed $283,650 to 1,481 individuals — 615 adults and 866 children.

'Mass exodus of refugees'

“We are targeting 20,000 refugees this year. We started giving out cash in November 2016 to gauge if this was the right direction. We will now continue with the programme until the cessation clause,” said Erika Fitzpatrick, UNHCR Rwanda associate reporting officer. “We have so far given cash to 13 families and realised that this programme can be helpful in getting as many refugees as possible back home,” she added.

The UN expects the monetary incentive to result in a “mass exodus of refugees” currently living in foreign countries.

The UNHCR approved the Rwanda Cessation Clause in 2011. It was then extended to 2013 and later to December 31, 2017. Rwanda then put in place a repatriation and reintegration programme to encourage refugees to return, and the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees says that between 1994 and 2014, over 3.4 million refugees have voluntarily returned home.

Reintegration programme

“Upon their return, we give them livestock, construction material, while others are offered training in various vocational skills,” said Minister in charge of Refugees Seraphine Mukantabana.

“Returnees are visited on a regular basis by our reintegration staff to ensure that they are smoothly reintegrated into the community, and we also try to help those who are still facing challenges,” she added.

Other incentives from the UN for refugees who willingly opt to return home include one year free medical insurance for treatment in government hospitals, free transportation within Rwanda and free mobile phones.

Saber Azam, the UNHCR representative for Rwandan refugees, said that the government of Rwanda had sufficient funding that to ensure the returnees are provided with permanent settlement in the country.

According to the UNHCR, returning refugees were previously being provided with household items but this eventually failed since most returnees were tempted to sell the items for cash.

“We are optimistic that the cash award option we have adopted now will be a success,” he said.

The UNHCR estimates that by the end of August 1994, at least 2.1 million Rwandan refugees had fled into neighbouring countries. To date, at least more than 3.4 million refugees have since returned according to the Rwanda Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees.