A push to tap into the potential of refugees in Rwanda is gaining momentum with the country and its development partners expected to embark on an economic inclusion drive.
Despite refugees in Rwanda and the region being seen as constituting a large and growing market with stable and commercially active groups, there are numerous barriers locking them out of the mainstream economy.
UN refugee agency (UNHCR) puts the economic potential of refugees in Rwanda at between $450 million and $500 million annually if they are given the opportunity to participate in the labour market.
Rwanda hosts over 190,000 refugees mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, who are placed in six camps and transit centres around the country.
About $94 million is injected into the economy every year in form of aid and pay to humanitarian workers.
“All this money is injected in the economy, but if a sizable number of the refugees were working then the product of their work, the tax that they would pay will be additional money,” said Azam Saber, UNHCR Rwanda country representative.
“It is a huge market. My message to the government is give refugees opportunities, they will be good taxpayers and good business people.”
The government together with UNHCR seeks to roll out a drive likely to see refugees get access to loans and grants through a project fronted by Financial Sector Deepening Africa (FSD Africa) to financially include refugees across sub-Saharan Africa.
FSD Africa regional strategies director Joseph Huxley, said they plan to invest $33 760 in innovative ideas and impactful financial products after conducting a scoping study expected to reveal the demand of financial services among refugee communities in Rwanda.
“We are beginning with Rwanda. Kenya may be a bit difficult because of the political situation, but once prove a case in Rwanda, Uganda is another market we are looking at while engaging the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance to make sure that there is an enabling environment for financial inclusion of refugees,” Mr Huxley, said.
East Africa’s partner states still apply dissimilar refugee policy regimes with regard to granting some rights.
The refugees report to find it hard to get employment, access to financial services, land and education, among other things deemed necessary for them to fully contribute to the growth of the economy.
“We are not allowed access to financial services as banks can’t work with us because we are refugees. Most of us have ideas and projects but no capital.
Access to loan is the major problem,” said Hannette Mugisha, a refugee engaged in small scale commercial activities in Gihembe, a refugee camp for Congolese established in 1997.
Refugees in Rwanda also decried difficulty getting IDs, a requisite to be granted some services while Burundians are yet to receive the documents, hence struggle to deal in income generating activities.
Innocent Ndayisaba, a Gihembe refugee representative said many active refugees are idle in the camps, waiting for cash estimated at Rwf7,000 ($8) per person per month.
“This is less than $10 per month. It is hard for a refugee without external source of income to make it to the end of the month,” he said.
Official figures indicate only 40 per cent of the males in the camps earn some income.
The situation not only imposes a huge humanitarian burden on the host communities but also creates socio-economic problems. For example, the youth are tempted to engage in crime for survival, hence high school dropout rates.
Besides, the 2016 Refugee Inter-agency Gender Assessment report had indicated lack of employment and money was pushing girls and women into sex in exchange for necessities.
Refugee agencies indicate that a few refugees in and outside the camp take part in artisanal arts and crafts alongside small businesses, but it is not yet clear how many they contribute to the economy.
Officials of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs said a soon-to-be commissioned verification and registration exercise, will profile the refugees to indicate the kind of intervention needed to make them self-reliant.
Minister Seraphine Mukantabana said the government was committed to creating a conducive environment for refugees to enjoy the same rights as citizens, such as putting them in the national health scheme as well as access to the national education system.
“We plan to grant cards to all the refugees. After the verification and registration exercise, we will grant them ID cards, allowing them access to all the services like every Rwandan citizen,” said Mukantabana.