Nobody is ever just a refugee

The movement of people from one country to another has always been a part of the way the world operates. Several stories of how migration has impacted nations, tribes and individuals have been written throughout history.

The movement of people from one country to another has always been a part of the way the world operates. Several stories of how migration has impacted nations, tribes and individuals have been written throughout history.

These stories highlight the lives of displaced people called refugees. Understanding who refugees are is a start to tapping into our humanity whenever we encounter them.

By definition, a refugee is, “a person who has been forced to leave their country because of war or for religious or political reasons” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Nevertheless, their plight is further challenged depending on whether their presence in a host country is welcomed or not.

One of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer addressed attendees at the United Nation’s World Humanitarian Day summit in New York and urged them to rethink the refugee crisis.

She narrated her parent's story as refugees and challenged the audience to look beyond the popular refugee discourse perpetuated by the mainstream media because, “we dehumanise people when we reduce them to just a single thing.”

According to Adichie, “Nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing. And yet, in the public discourse today, we often speak of people as a single thing. Refugee. Immigrant.”

Adichie, who is also a novelist and non-fiction writer said that, “Let us tell a different story. Let us remember that the movement of human beings on earth is not new. Human history is a history of movement and mingling.

Let us remember that we are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.”

Therefore, contrary to popular belief, refugees are not a burden to the host country. They are a valuable resource to the host countries, economy, diversity and humanity.

And this can be seen in their significant economic contribution to the private sector if they have legal protection that enables them to exercise their right of work and dignity.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that there are 20 million refugees in the world today.

Their rights are defined and protected by international law, which mandates that they must not be expelled or returned to situations that put their life and freedom at risk ( This indicates that it is the duty of every nation to host and protect the rights of displaced people.

Rwanda as a country, has been absorbing a large influx of refugees for over two decades. These refugees have mostly fled conflict, persecution, and natural disasters in their home countries.

In their search for a peaceful, non-violent and welcoming host country, they embark on journeys for thousands of miles under treacherous terrains, harsh weather and difficult conditions due to circumstances they cannot control.

The responsibility of the host country is to ensure that these displaced people are provided for with shelter, food and clothing within a secure camp settlement.

In retrospect, we see that Rwanda as a country gives refugees the right to work, the right to start companies, and the freedom of movement within its borders. Host communities can benefit economically in a number of ways.

This includes; through trade with the host country’s communities, employment, the local purchase of products and services, shelter material, expenditures of aid workers, foreign currency exchange from humanitarian agencies supplying relief, as well as the rent, education, and asset expenses incurred by urban refugees who have the capacity to independently spend and sustain their livelihoods.

While the perfect world would be one without situations that result in refugees, crises are inevitable as seen in the world as well as Rwanda’s neighbouring regions. As a consequence, the country has been receiving refugees in the tens of thousands from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Angola, Afghanistan, Kenya, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad, Central African Republic, Haiti, Uganda and more recently, Libya.

The Rwandan UN Agency for Refugees UNHCR, indicates that Rwanda as of November 2017 has recorded a total population of 172,706 refugees and asylum seekers. Of these, 50% are children 0-17 years, 47% are 18-59 years and 3% are 60+ years. This is an indication that even though a country is still a developing economy, densely populated and small like Rwanda, room can always be made for displaced and stateless persons.

On the other hand, there are people who argue that refugees are a burden to host countries. They cite the challenges that come with hosting refugees and this has resulted in the misinformed view that displaced persons are foreigners, aliens and intruders to the citizens of a host country. This mostly arises from fears of high crime rates, increased unemployment among the youth, the scramble for limited resources and the depletion of scarce resources. This has resulted in the negative perception toward refugees in host countries.

Nonetheless, a broader perspective of humanity, irrespective of the outstanding challenges resulting from a refugee influx into a host nation should be considered. It is through this approach that host countries can look at the humanness of displaced people. A failure to fulfill the duty of taking in displaced persons is an injustice. Refugees are consumers, suppliers, employees, entrepreneurs, scholars, educators et. al, but most importantly, they are human beings.

Views, expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Times Publications.