Congolese refugees protest turn violent

Five Congolese refugees died and 15 others sustained injuries when clashes broke out Thursday between hundreds of refugees and the police after the latter intervened to quell a violent refugees’ protest at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees field office in Karongi District, the police have said.

In a statement released Friday, the Rwanda National Police (RNP) said several of its officers were also injured in the process and both the wounded refugees and demonstrators were taken to Kibuye hospital for treatment.

“This Thursday afternoon, following three days of sit-in at UNHCR premises, the demonstrations turned violent and Police intervened to calm down the situation,” the statement, signed by Police Spokesperson CP Theo Badege, says.

It adds: “Violent demonstrators armed with stones, sticks and metal projectiles assaulted and wounded seven police officers. Police were forced to use teargas to disperse the rioters, protect and rescue officials, and secure the nearby communities.”

On Tuesday, about 500 refugees in Kiziba Camp in Karongi District marched to the UNHCR offices and camped outside in protest over reduced food rations from the UN agency.

As the relevant local and international institutions came together to discuss and peacefully resolve the issue, RNP continued to monitor the situation to ensure that security prevails, the statement says.

“Efforts by the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs, UNHCR and local leaders, among others, to request the refugees to return to their camp as the issue was being resolved were met with strong resistance and protests,” it adds.

Unfortunately, 20 rioters were wounded in the process, with five of them succumbing to injuries, the police say in the statement.

Fifteen of the rioters have also been arrested for instigating the violence, RNP says, adding that “most of the refugees have since returned to Kiziba camp.

The police reminded the protestors that disruption of public order was unacceptable. “The refugees were requested to respect the law, avoid unlawful demonstration and exercise calm as their issues are looked into by concerned institutions”.

In a statement released on Thursday, the UNHCR also appealed to the Congolese refugees to respect local laws and express grievances through dialogue, and called on authorities to handle the situation with calm and restraint.

UNHCR says it was advocating with donors to address the gaps in humanitarian funding and urgent needs of refugees.

The UNHCR explained that humanitarian operations in Rwanda remain severely underfunded, which forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations by 10 per cent in November 2017 and by 25 per cent in January 2018.

To date, it said, UNHCR’s 2018 appeal for US$98.8 million to support refugees in Rwanda is only 2 per cent funded.

The WFP also warned of potential larger ration cuts if monthly requirements of US$2.5 million are not met.

Prolonged ration cuts put at serious risk food security and nutritional needs of refugees, who are dependent on assistance, it warned.

The UN agency further acknowledged that some refugees have also indicated their desire to return to their country, out of desperation.

“Refugees have the right to return to their country whenever they wish. But we urge refugees to make an informed decision and not to listen to misinformation or rumours,” Ahmed Baba Fall, the UNHCR Representative in Rwanda, said in the statement.

Rwanda hosts over 173,000 refugees in six camps, including Kiziba, where the Congolese refugees have lived for over 20 years.

The Kiziba refugee camp hosts over 17,000 refugees.