With record-high numbers of refugees—including in Rwanda which is today hosting more refugees than ever before in its history—countries around the world join the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in paying tribute to the strength and resilience of millions of refugee families on World Refugee Day. Internationally commemorated on 20 June each year, it is a time to show support and solidarity for refugees—who are just average people like you and me living in extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.
This year Rwanda joins the rest of the world to mark the World Refugee Day and stand with more than 162,000 refugees living in this country, in 6 camps and urban areas. They come mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, with small numbers from other nationalities. If you ask refugees in the oldest camps in Rwanda what they want for their future, they tell you that they pray for peace in their country so they can return home. Burundian refugees in the newest camp, Mahama— opened in April 2015 and today home to almost 50,000 refugees— say the same thing. Unfortunately, the conditions back home are not conducive for refugees to return in safety and dignity, which is why they need protection in Rwanda.
The refugee response in Rwanda is led by the Government of Rwanda Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) and UNHCR; last year alone, thanks to support from donors, UNHCR spent nearly USD 35 million that went directly to refugee protection and assistance in Rwanda. This covered construction and opening of Mahama camp and transit centers, registration of all refugees and support for unaccompanied and separated children, providing shelter, firewood and basic items needed for daily life, setting up water treatment systems and wells so refugees have enough water, constructing latrines and set-up and staffing of health centers. The refugee response includes numerous UN and NGO partners who mobilized an additional 12.7 million in donor contributions for essential humanitarian interventions for refugees. But with a population of over 82,000 Congolese who have lived as refugees for many years and with no chance of going home, it becomes critical to shift from humanitarian aid to self-reliance.
Refugee camps are only designed for the short term; they should be only a temporary measure in response to forced displacement. Yet Rwanda’s oldest camp, Kiziba, has been “home” to thousands of refugees for 20 years. Children in the camp have known no other life than that of a refugee, where each day depends on humanitarian aid. However, assistance provided by UNHCR and partners is conditional upon funding from donors, which is steadily decreasing as a result of the escalating global refugee crisis. This means that bridging development programmes to refugees— especially those in old camps like Kiziba—could not be more important or timely.
UNHCR’s livelihoods strategy for Rwanda is now being implemented and envisions that all refugees should be able to fulfill their productive potential as self-reliant members of Rwandan society who contribute to economic development of their host communities. UNHCR will partner with Rwanda-based social enterprises that can include refugees as part of their value chains and work with refugees as either consumers, suppliers or employees. Experience shows that refugee socio-economic integration benefits refugee-hosting communities as well as refugees themselves. Rather than being a burden, refugees actually contribute to the development and economic growth of host countries as they become progressively more self-reliant. In the local context, 95% of refugees in Rwanda have a shared socio-cultural affinity and cultural norms with Rwandans and speak Kinyarwanda, making socio-economic integration more seamless. Rwanda’s policy of integration for refugees in national systems for education and health also lays the groundwork for integrated development, and UNHCR has constructed over 110 classrooms in national schools and built capacity in national health facilities, where refugees receive services alongside members of the host community.
Rwanda’s economic development and prosperity will increasingly rely on non-agricultural activities. Accordingly, UNHCR is targeting more sustainable options for the socio-economic integration of longterm refugees while building on the added value they bring to the country’s development in terms of their skills, trade, business acumen or academic expertise. Rwanda generously ensures the right to work for refugees which provides a path for refugees to reduce their dependence on unsustainable humanitarian aid, and engage in the local market. UNHCR is also shifting from distribution of basic household items to cash, which will expand refugee contributions to local markets while also empowering them with more choice as to the best way to meet their individual needs.
UNHCR has initiated a dialogue with development partners to identify more sustainable avenues to improve and advance socio-economic inclusion of protracted refugees and reduce the need for parallel systems in refugee camps. As we commemorate World Refugee Day let us use this occasion to reflect back on twenty years of hosting, protecting and assisting refugees to think about solutions that can lift them out of dependency on humanitarian assistance through self-reliance and greater integration and contribution to the local community.