Rwanda wants countries to take in more Congolese refugees

Thursday January 26 2017

Congolese refugees in Gihembe Refugee Camp in Gicumbi District. Rwanda hosts over 147,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA

Congolese refugees in Gihembe Refugee Camp in Gicumbi District. Rwanda hosts over 147,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA 

By IVAN MUGISHA

Rwanda is frustrated with the low absorption of Congolese refugees by other countries.

Whereas countries like the US, Canada and Scandinavian countries agreed to host as many as 10,000 Congolese refugees, only about 3,000 have been resettled in these countries, according to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs.

“Basing on the size of our country, hosting so many refugees is a challenge; but it is a challenge that Rwanda decided to welcome,” Jean Claude Rwahama, the director of refugee affairs at the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees said.

He added: “We were considering resettlement of Congolese refugees as a possibility, but the other countries are a little bit reluctant to take them in. We are now focusing on the livelihood project with UNHCR to empower the refugees and make them more productive.”

Despite its size in the East African region, Rwanda is recognised by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as among the more progressive refugee-hosting countries in the world — a position cemented when Rwanda agreed to host over 81,000 Burundian refugees last year.

Under the livelihood scheme, whose pilot was launched in October last year, Congolese refugees in Rwanda will participate in economic activities.

Despite some relative peace recorded in their home area, Congolese refugees are not keen to return home, and according to UNHCR figures over 27,000 of them now reside in five camps in Rwanda.

Having fled violent conflict in eastern DRC in 1996, these refugees have now spent two decades living in Rwandan camps. For the younger ones; this means they have known no other life than that in a refugee camp.

They have no zeal to go back home, even when many of them continue to be isolated from a normal life, especially those in camps that are remotely situated, such as the Kiziba Camp in Karongi District, Western province.

“Refugees indicate that they continue to fear insecurity in their country of origin and thus do not feel they can return to DRC in safety. UNHCR will only facilitate return that is safe, voluntary and dignified,” Martina Pomeroy, the external relations officer of UNHCR Rwanda, said in an interview.

In October last year, both UNHCR and Rwanda launched a strategy for economic inclusion of refugees, which aims at enabling Congolese refugees to contribute to the local economy by acquiring employability or entrepreneurial skills.

This, according to Ms Pomeroy, will make them self-reliant so they are no longer dependent upon “unsustainable and undignified humanitarian aid”.

Support for Congolese refugees in Rwanda has dwindled significantly, particularly due to fresh refugee crises from Syria, Burundi and Afghanistan —which have taken almost all the attention of donors.

This has led to a wide funding gap for programmes focused on Congolese refugees. For example, the UN refugee agency has so far received only $15 million for its Congolese refugee programme in Rwanda, which is less than a third of the $41 million it asked the donors to provide.

“The resources we are able to allocate to Congolese refugees have been decreasing year after year, which is why it is essential to find innovative, development-oriented solutions for long-term refugees. After 20 years it is simply wrong to rely on humanitarian answers,” Ms Pomeroy said.

“UNHCR is supporting the government of Rwanda to help integrate refugees into national systems for education, as this is the best solution for long-term refugees – and empowering them to be self-sufficient and contribute to Rwanda’s economy and development.”