2017: Working to support refugees contribute to Rwanda’s development

Caption:Dr. Saber Azam, UNHCR Rwanda, Country Representative


The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) leads the refugee response in Rwanda with the Government Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR), working with a range of important actors including sister UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations, civil society and private sector actors to ensure that refugees enjoy human rights and can meet their basic needs. While a key mandate of UNHCR is to ensure that refugees are protected and provided life-saving assistance, a key priority is ensuring that we find solutions to refugee situations.

Mr. Saber Azam, the Representative of the UNHCR shares insights on the organisation’s handling of refugees in Rwanda

QN: What is the role of UNHCR in relation to the handling of refugee affairs in Rwanda today?

AS: First of all, refugees entering Rwanda or any other country are the responsibility of the Government hosting them. UNHCR comes in to support Governments, to ensure and safeguarding refugees’ wellbeing and protection, and helping the Government cope with the enormous needs faced when there is a sudden mass influx of refugees. Today, we are supporting nearly 170,000 refugees, primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, but we also support the return of thousands of Rwandans who lived as refugees abroad and who are returning home.

UNHCR’s core mandate is to ensure that refugees’ rights are protected, and that solutions are found to refugee problems. But as the agency responsible for refugees, UNHCR supports refugees across the board—from providing shelter, to building classrooms and hiring teachers to ensure refugee children can go to school, setting up systems for water and sanitation, constructing and running health posts, and helping refugees access energy for cooking—the list goes on and on.

QN: What is the status of refugee affairs in Rwanda today?

AS: To begin with, Rwanda has maintained open borders to offer safety to refugees forced to flee their homes. This is already commendable, particularly when we hear stories in some countries which deny entry to refugees or send them back to places where they may face persecution.

But the Government of Rwanda has gone a step further. At the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, convened by former U.S. President Barack Obama, the Government of Rwanda committed itself to include refugees in its national development agenda—which makes it a leader in the refugee sphere.

Specifically, Rwanda committed to include refugees in national systems for education, access to health insurance, national documentation, and improving refugee self-reliance. UNHCR has a joint strategy with the Government to improve refugees’ inclusion in the socio-economic texture of the country, so they can undertake business ventures as well as participate in social structures. We see some refugees standing on their own two feet owning businesses, contributing to the national economy. Most recently, there have been refugee cultural contributions—for example, a group of Burundian refugees took to the catwalk in Kigali Fashion Week.

One of UNHCR’s priorities for 2017 is to ensure that we support the Government to meet these commitments and make them sustainable.

QN: Who are some of the major partners that UNHCR works with in handling refugee affairs in the country today, and what are their points of intervention?

AS: We have worked with a number of partners that have been instrumental in ensuring that refugees are well taken care of.

The Government of Rwanda, which is the key player in refugee protection, has provided a most hospitable environment for refugees and organisations willing to support them in any possible way. To put it more clearly, it has responded to many refugee concerns with a lot of urgency, in terms of policy and implementation.

Organisations like the World Food Programme are critical in the refugee response, providing food support or cash in lieu of food which are essential for refugees to live a decent life. UNICEF has provided critical support in child protection and sanitation systems. UNFPA in protection of mothers and reproductive health, MIGEPROF in zero tolerance to gender-based violence in camps, WHO in prevention of major disasters like cholera, GHDF for shelter and construction, water and sanitation, FSDS for environmental protection, Legal Aid Forum for handling all legal issues in camps and outside and NGOs like ADRA, American Refugee Committee, Plan International, Save The Children and African Humanitarian Action working in areas including shelter, health and child protection.

QN: The Cessation Clause relating to the Rwandan refugee situation is supposed to have been fully implemented by Jan 2018, briefly tell us about the progress of its implementation

AS: We acknowledge that Rwanda is a safe, prosperous and well-governed country so there is no reason for Rwandans to remain refugees outside the country. This is why UNHCR convened a Ministerial meeting in 2016 together with the Government to agree on a strategy to bring the Rwandan refugee situation to a close.

Through this strategy, refugees are encouraged to return and be financially supported to reintegrate in society. UNHCR helps every family returning to Rwanda by providing cash assistance, including $250 for each adult and $150 for each child. For a family of 5 persons, they are given between $1000 and $ 1200. Returnees are also given 1 year medical insurance and the children are given free scholastic materials and three months of food supplies.

Those willing to stay in their host countries, probably because they have stayed away for long or due to assimilation into the host country,  can be facilitated to get a Rwandan passport.

If they don’t want to return or get the passport of Rwanda, they can seek local integration in the country they reside and apply for citizenship.

All these measures should be in implementation between now and the end of the year hence by Jan 2018, the Rwandan refugee status will cease.

QN: What can be marked out as UNHCR’s Milestones in handling refugee affairs in Rwanda?

AS: We collaborated with the Government of Rwanda in handling the Burundi refugee emergency in a very proactive, efficient way. From the first day of their arrival, the Burundian refugees were encouraged right away to engage in business, attend school and vocational centres.

UNHCR also introduced a new shelter concept for refugees who can now enjoy permanent structures whose longevity stretches to more than 20 years, including engaging private contractors to help build shelters and employing refugees themselves.

UNHCR also set up a water treatment system, in which water from the Akagera river is treated so that it can be drinkable. Now, refugees and also host community members in the Kirehe district have access to clean water. This is a remarkable achievement.

Health standards for refugees in Rwanda are also at par with the Rwandan host community. Refugees have their health needs met faster and in the best possible environment. For example the health centres in Mahama Village are set to Rwanda national standards.

The quality of education offered to refugee students has been improved with over one hundred classrooms being constructed by UNHCR in Mahama and in other camps. And with integration of the education systems, refugees can benefit from a harmonized system of education.

With effect from July 2017, we shall start supporting Congolese and Burundian refugees with cash, giving them the freedom to choose how to spend their money according to their household priorities, and also to engage in business ventures. It has been scientifically demonstrated in two academic studies by the University of California and Maastricht University that rather than being a burden, refugees actually contribute to the host community economy. Through the introduction of the cash assistance program, we expect to see even more refugees having small businesses, engaging in trade with Rwandan businesses, and becoming self-reliant.

How has UNHCR addressed some of the challenges for better handling of refugee affairs?

We have gone a long way in achieving their mandatory obligations.  However there have been some setbacks.

Staying on guard to counter the health hazards has been a challenge. In the past there have been severe outbreaks of Ebola in Congo, cholera and typhoid which required a lot of resources to contain. We remain on guard, working closely with the Ministry of Health and The World Health Organisation to identify some health risk indicators and respond to them immediately.

Currently, there is a problem of Malaria and we are in intense discussions with responsible organisations to have the refugee camps catered for under the residual spray programs.

To address the challenge of water access, we have ensured that the refugee camps are linked to WASAC networks.

Also, the issue of many school drop-outs among refugees is still a big problem and UNHCR is carrying out a lot of advocacy to highlight the importance of education, increasing the number of secondary schools as well as partnering with Government to have refugees enrolled in vocational training. Excellent students will be given scholarships.

Keeping refugees engaged has been a challenge hence we are constructing sports grounds for boys and girls to play.

We have to remain vigilant about the civilian and humanitarian character of the camp.

Lastly, the case of Rwanda in receiving and managing the affairs of refugees is unique. .We wish to extend our sincere gratitude to the people of Rwanda, the Government and our partners for the continued support.

World Refugee Day

This year’s theme is to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence—and most importantly, the contribution they can make to Rwanda’s development.