Despair Among Congolese Refugees Due for Relocation to Camp Where Burundians Are Departing

As Burundian refugees repatriate, government of Rwanda has settled on relocating some of the Congolese refugees to a large camp in eastern Rwanda.

For Congolese refugees living in Gihembe camp located in Gicumbi district, to the northwest, the relocation decision is causing despair. Some are describing the move as being forced into refugee life for a third time.

The Mahama camp in Kirehe district district near Tanzania opened in April 2015 to cater for the massive influx of Burundians escaping political upheaval in their country. Since then, it grew to accommodate up to 70,000 refugees.

Suddenly, Rwanda and Burundi began secret talks around the middle of last year. Since September, many Burundian refugees have gone back home as the political situation improves, and deep cuts in food rations are implemented by the UN.

Rwanda hosted a total of 142,043 Refugees and Asylum Seekers at the end of January 2021. At least 54.6% of them are Congolese, who have been coming at different times since 1997. They live in five camps located in different regions of Rwanda: Gihembe, Kigeme, Kiziba, Mugombwa and Nyabiheke.

Burundians account for about 45% of the refugee population in Rwanda. As they repatriate, the Mahama camp, built with permanent brick structures, as well as schools and health facilities, would have turned into ghost site.

More than 3,000 Congolese have since November last year been moved to Mahama camp from Kigeme camp in Karongi district. Thousands more still remain there.

Out of the 12,000 Congolese in Gihembe camps (Gicumbi), more than 2,000 will be moved to Mahama camp. These will begin relocating next month.

According to Rwanda’s Ministry of Emergency Management, which oversees refugees, the relocations from both camps are targeted at refugees whose homes are situated on what are called “high risk zones”.

Both Kigeme and Gihembe camps were built on hills. Both regions are prone to heavy rain and landslides, which have affected the two camps every year.

When our reporter visited Gihembe camp in Gicumbi, the Congolese refugees swarmed her to narrate their concerns. However, none was willing to be identified for the story, perhaps fearing repercussions.

Their colleagues in Kigeme faced the full wrath of government when they held a demonstration in February 2018 over reduced food rations. The authorities responded with full force, leaving some deaths and injuries. 31 of them are currently in court facing prosecution for the deadly protest.

At the Gihembe camp, one refugee told our reporter: “Why do they want to separate families? If they are relocating, they should relocate all of us, not just a few.”

“We have had to come back here as refugees twice. Sending us to another camp is sending us into refugee life for a third time,” said another refugee.

Radio Ishingiro has also been informed that the government land on which the Gihembe camp is located had been planned for establishment of a university several years ago. At the time, local and central government official hoped the refugees wouldn’t stay too long.

More than 20 years later, the Congolese are still around. The planned university, was eventually established in another location. It is the Byumba University of Technology and Arts (UTAB), which opened in 2006 as an institute.

Murebwayire Gorethi, the head of Gihembe camp said there are no ulterior motives behind the relocations of the Congolese.

“We really love these refugees. Everything we do is for their good. I wonder why they can’t see that. Their homes are at risk of landslides,” said Murebwayire.

She said there was huge space with well-developed amenities in Mahama camp that will be left behind by departing Burundians.

Twishime Jean Claude, spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry said the land on which Gihembe camp is located is public land. “There is no other owner for this land and therefore all speculation that the refugees are being relocated so that its given to a developer, is false,” he said.

Dr Ndahayo Fidele, vice-chancellor of UTAB said the university was initially scheduled to get the land on which Gihembe camp is located. But that the institution was eventually established in another location.

“We didn’t get that land on which Gihembe camp is located, which means it remained public land. We have nothing to do with it. We no longer need it because we have our own,” said Dr Ndahayo.

What is clear from the divergent information going around is that government officials have done little to sensitize the Congolese refugees that the relocations are for their good. The refugees feel they have not been consulted, while officials wonder why the refugees can’t see the good that’s coming their way.

The UN refugees agency UNHCR expects that by end of this year, most of the 44,000 Burundians still here would have gone back home. They will leave a huge camp area.

By Phoibe Mukandayisenga