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Taking stock of East African country as a refugee host

Young refugees are seen at their family’s tent provided by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, at the Kigeme refugee camp in southern Rwanda. File picture: Flora Bagenal/AFP

Young refugees are seen at their family’s tent provided by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, at the Kigeme refugee camp in southern Rwanda. File picture: Flora Bagenal/AFP

Published May 1, 2022


By Evan Easton-Calabria

The UK and Rwanda recently announced a deal in which the UK will send some people claiming asylum to the east African nation where their cases will be processed.

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If they are granted asylum, they will be encouraged to remain in Rwanda for at least five years. Here are some key insights into Rwanda as a refugee host country.

Rwanda hosts about 127585 refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom come from just two countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (about 77288) and Burundi (about 49827).

This is a significant number that nonetheless pales in comparison to neighbouring Uganda’s approximately 1.5million and Kenya’s 550000 refugees. Rwanda has six refugee camps.

Of the six camps, the Mahama refugee camp is the newest and the largest, home to more than 56000 refugees. The other five are smaller in size. An estimated 50000 Congolese refugees have been in Rwanda since 1996.

They are mainly of Banyarwanda background (including both Hutu and Tutsi) and fled to Rwanda to avoid persecution by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) in 1995 and 1996. For more than 20 years they’ve mostly been living in camps like Kiziba, the oldest refugee camp in Rwanda. Almost 17 000 Congolese refugees live in Kiziba.

Most Burundian refugees arrived in 2015, after a widespread civil conflict. At the time, more than 70 000 Burundians came to Rwanda, mainly staying in the Mahama camp. The responsibility of assisting refugees in Rwanda is co-ordinated between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Rwanda’s Ministry in Charge of Emergency Management. Together, they manage refugee camps, repatriation, and projects – like environmental protection – in and around the camps. UNHCR largely defers to the government and only plays a supporting role in refugee assistance.

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There are also various partners who provide services like healthcare, water, and shelter in the camps. But even in long-standing camps like Kiziba, refugees face limited access to electricity and clean water.

Because inhabitants have been there for a long time, the size of families have grown, but infrastructure hasn’t kept up. While assistance agencies can address some of these challenges, they are constrained by practical and political factors.

Rwanda is a small country, about 26000km² in size. Finding available land to expand refugee camps or which refugees can farm is difficult. Rwanda is also a very politically restricted country. Constraints on political advocacy and freedom of speech affect citizens, refugees, and assistance agencies – including UNHCR.

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They risk their activities being curtailed if they denounce the treatment of refugees, like the killing of refugees in Kiziba and Karongi Town. In 2018, Rwanda committed to applying the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, the current global approach to protecting refugees.

The framework includes a commitment to help refugees build self-reliance, in large part, through promoting their integration and economic inclusion. The government of Rwanda has, for example, committed to making banking services accessible to refugees and to issuing refugees with national identity cards.

But there’s dwindling aid funding for protracted refugee situations. For instance, in 2021, the World Food Programme announced it would reduce food assistance to refugees in Rwanda by a shocking 60% – three years after a 25% food ration cut for refugees in Rwanda was the basis for protests which led to 11 refugee fatalities.

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In 2021, just 55% of UNHCR’s operation costs to support refugees in Rwanda was covered by funding. This figure is all the more worrying when compared against the level of need – the number of refugees in eastern Africa has almost tripled in the past decade, from 1.82 million in 2012 to nearly five million this year.

Funding shortfalls mean that more than 70% of these refugees do not receive a full food ration. In the face of declining funding, the idea of refugee self-reliance is appealing to donors.

But becoming self-reliant isn’t straightforward. Refugees in many countries remain in camps and don’t have access to social or business networks or other resources they might need to access or create employment. For example, while refugees in Rwanda have the right to freedom of movement and work.

In practice, it’s difficult for them to move around because of bureaucracy as well as the remote location of some camps. Officially, they must receive permission to leave camps; this alone can take up to a month.

And they have to return to camps regularly to renew their permits. In many situations, reducing aid – on the assumption that they’re becoming more independent – has severely compromised refugees’ well-being.

Helping refugees find avenues to generate income and live independently from aid can be positive for donors, agencies, and refugees alike. But reducing assistance in inappropriate conditions risks refugees turning to family or friends who are equally impoverished.

This adds to the stress and difficulty of refugees’ lives and doesn’t mean that they will be encouraged – or are able – to become self-reliant. Instead, fostering refugees’ independence from aid may instead necessitate more support initially, be that in the form of cash grants, microloans, or intensive skills training.

Rwanda’s neighbour Uganda is often used as the model country when it comes to enabling refugee selfreliance. It’s been lauded for providing land for refugees to farm on and for having a relatively open legal environment in which refugees can run businesses and even direct their own community organisations to help each other.

At the same time, it is clear that it is not perfect. For example, if refugees want to live in any urban area beside the capital, Kampala, they forfeit their right to receive humanitarian assistance and often remain unseen and unsupported.

Ultimately, supporting refugees better in the region means granting rights – like the right to work and freedom of movement – and enabling access to these rights.

Refugees in Rwanda have many of the same rights as those in Uganda yet face more challenges and discrimination in accessing them. Lack of assistance in urban areas, or the right to legally reside in them as recognised refugees, is a crucial ongoing issue in many countries in the region and beyond.

Self-reliance programmes must address these structural barriers. And donors and agencies must recognise that promoting refugees’ independence from aid will not occur simply by reducing it.

* Easton-Calabria is a senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, and Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. This is an edited version of her article that was published first on

The Conversation