The conviction that no one in need of refuge, should ever be without it, is at the core of the policy on refugees, under the RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) led government in Rwanda. It is that principle that the diplomatic community in the country, witnessed in action, during a government organised visit to Mahama refugee camp, in Kirehe district.
“We thank you for bringing blessings with you” quipped Kirehe district mayor, Bruno Rangira, in his welcome address to the gathered ranks of ambassadors, high commissioners and other dignitaries. In his guest’s ears, his voice was accompanied by the sound of rain drops, on the marquee under which they sheltered the April downpour. In Kinyarwanda culture, which historically knew life threatening droughts, rain is seen as a blessing.
And the diplomats, who started their weekend early, to visit the refugee camp, brought a generous amount of the blessings with them, to the extent that said blessings, delayed the day’s programme. But aware that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing the rain subsided enough for the organised tour of the camp to go ahead.
According to the Rwanda Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MINAFFET), the visit was arranged in response to the diplomats’ own wishes to learn more about the conditions of the refugees.
Mahama refugee camp is home to just under sixty thousand, of the over 120,000 refugees in Rwanda, the majority of whom are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Burundi.
It is perhaps a misnomer, to refer to Mahama as a refugee camp. In reality, it is more like a settlement, or any other village in Rwanda, and for Bruno Rangira, it is just another part of the district under his leadership.
For a first time visitor, other than tell tale signs, like UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) vehicles and signs, it is difficult to say where the refugee camp begins, and the adjacent villages end.
School children of all ages, mill about, coming from, or going to school, people stand by their houses, or go about their daily business. This normality is no accident. For Rwanda, making refugees feel at home, is a matter not just of policy, but of values.
There are few Rwandans above the age of thirty, who do not know what it is to be a refugee, and the country is determined that no one shall suffer what, for decades, Rwanda’s refugees had to endure.
There are international obligations on countries, on how refugees should be treated, in particular, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a treaty that builds on article 14 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing the rights of people under persecution, to seek asylum in other countries. Under these obligations, with the support of the UN, and multilateral organisations, the government of Rwanda, provides protection and assistance to refugees on its soil.
But the country goes beyond what is required of it, under its international obligations to refugees. Uniquely, refugees in Rwanda, are fully integrated into the local communities. Under the Strategic Plan for Refugee inclusion, and Joint Strategy on Economic Inclusion of Refugees, refugees are afforded the right to all the services and rights of Rwandan citizens, and refugees may apply for citizenship.
The welcome is universally appreciated by the refugees, but they long to return to their own homeland. “We feel safe, welcome and our lives here are comfortable,” said William Mutijima, speaking on behalf of the refugees, “but this isn’t home. Our home is Congo, it is where our lands are, nothing can replace that.”
Refugees from the DRC began arriving in Rwanda, in 1996-7, nearly thirty years later, more still arriving. Since 2018, a further 7,477 have been received. Almost all are fleeing persecution, and genocidal murders of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese.
The refugees from the DRC were later joined by tens of thousands from Burundi. But since the recent change of government in Burundi, efforts to repatriate them are underway. To date, 30,000 have returned home. More may follow, but as the Rwanda minister for emergency management, who accompanied the diplomats, Solange Kayisire, emphasized, refugees’ repatriation has to be on the voluntary basis.
In her remarks, the minister drew attention to the continuing persecution of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese in the DRC, persecution which meant that more refugees continued to arrive. This in turn calls for greater funding for refugees’ basic needs, including food supplies.
There is much that is laudable about Mahama refugee camp, from the well constructed health centre, equipped to perform caesareans, the schools, and the well organised, albeit modest accommodation. But while the pressure on these services increases by the day, the funding has not only not kept pace with the growing demand, but has been cut.
Both minister Kayisire, and the UNHCR representative, warned of the urgent need that resulted from reductions in funding. The cuts affect all the services, from food supplies, provision of healthcare, and the so called WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) to school classrooms. “With 25,000 pupils, Mahama is home to the largest school in Rwanda” the minister pointed out.
And there is a need for rehabilitation of the environment, which has suffered from the effect of so many people making a once forested area home. Funding is needed to provide gas, instead of relying on wood for cooking fuel.
Essential as the funding is however, the need most ardently expressed by the refugees, was to find a way they can return to their own homes. Perhaps attributing to their guests more power and influence than they wield, one after another, refugees from the DRC, asked the diplomats what can be done for the government of the DRC, to allow them to return to their homeland. “We ask you to make our problem, your own” pleaded a grandfather, Songa Rwabukamba.
“We Congolese Tutsi, living in Rwanda…would like to the attention of the Rwanda government, the Congolese government and the UNHCR, to the current socio-political security context in the Eastern part of the DRC, where most of us originate” Mutijima read, in a statement to the diplomatic representatives, “In fact, we are shocked by the radicalisation of the local population, buy the DRC political leaders, who continue to refute the existence of Congolese refugees in Rwanda…the rise of hate speech, which continue to propagated by civil society actors, citizen movements, and members of the ruling party…”
The statement received an attentive hearing, and polite applause, as did other interventions from individual refugees, all of which revolved around what could be done, for them to return to their home country.
Assuring the refugees that they had been heard, Sweden’s ambassador, Johanna Teague, expressed concern for the continued deterioration of the situation in the DRC, and promised to take the refugees’ concerns to her government, and to the European Union, of which Sweden is a member. In particular, she noted the need for further funding, to meet the refugees’ needs.