Rwanda is a country in Africa that is located in the region currently affected by the ongoing tensions in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) other African nations. It has been hosting refugees for several decades, and at the same time has been receiving and reintegrating thousands of Rwandan returnees. The majority of these refugees are hosted in camps, and Gihembe is one of these settlements. The others are Kigeme, Kiziba, Mahama, Mugombwa, and Nyabiheke.
As of March 2015, Gihembe was hosting 14,774 individuals in a settlement that is built on 40-hectares of land. It is located in Byumba town in the Northern Province and was established in December 1997 to host Congolese refugees who fled conflicts in the Eastern DRC. They were initially hosted at Mudende camp in the Rubavu District, but were relocated to Gihembe which is far from the border. This was following attacks by armed groups at Mudende, which led to the deaths of many of these refugees. With so many people squeezed into such a small, densely populated country, and with more refugees flooding into the country due to the current instability in Burundi, Rwanda is struggling to accommodate the growing number of displaced individuals.
This difficulty is evident in the camps and the lives that the refugees live there. In Gihembe, the unstable supply of potable water and the lack of decent housing and latrines are just a few of the problems the current residents face. Here are more facts and statistics about the refugee camp.
- There are about 3,500 households, with an average family size of 5 individuals.
- More than half of the camp population is aged 18 years old and above, mostly survivors from the 1997 Mudende Refugee Camp massacre.
- Those who are aged 17 and under were most likely born in the camps (3,570 girls and 3,524 boys according to UNHCR’s records for March 2015).
- The refugees had to depend solely on food rations and supplies from the international community in the past. There were reports that food and basic needs (such as soap) were not enough.
- In 2014, the World Food Programme introduced a cash transfer system to the refugees in the camp. They distributed about 3,500 mobile phones to the heads of the households. These phones are used to receive and transfer money through an electronic banking solution called mVISA. Households are given a monthly allowance which they can use to shop for different foods of their choice, diversifying their diets.
- With the flowing in of additional refugees from Burundi, reports and fears of food shortages is now a concern in the camps.
Health and Nutrition
- There is a health center in Gihembe camp, and it has consultation rooms, a maternity ward, a laboratory, in-patient wards, and a pharmacy. This facility provides primary care to the refugees, as well as HIV/AIDS testing and counseling.
- There is a nutrition center and it has provided support to malnourished and vulnerable refugees.
- With a large population and limited medical resources and facilities, there have been several cases where patients have had to wait for many hours before a doctor could attend to them.
- Respiratory infections are the leading cause of infant deaths in the camp. The cold and damp living conditions are most likely the reason for children to acquire such illnesses.
- Only 15% of the population has a secondary education, while 50% have a primary education. There are only very few refugees who have a post-university or university education.
- Children are educated in the camp and programs cover primary education up to the 6th level, and secondary education up to the 3rd level. Those who want to pursue schooling beyond that level must attend a school outside the camp, usually at their own expense, thus discouraging most refugees due to lack of resources.
- Courses for English as a Second Language (ESL) can now be taken by refugees in Gihembe who have been approved for the resettlement process.
- International and local organizations have introduced livelihood programs so Gihembe refugees can have the means and resources to support their daily needs. Some of these projects are mushroom growing for HIV positive women, micro and kitchen gardening, and vocational and technical training.
- Some refugees work for NGOs, while others have had to find informal employment as farmers, domestic workers, mechanics, and building construction workers.
- Gihembe refugee camp is located on hilly terrain. Because it has little vegetation and insufficient drainage facilities and is overcrowded, the environment is facing extreme degradation.
- Gullies and ravines caused by extreme soil erosion, deforestation, and lacking conservation measures are also a growing concern. The worsening problem of soil erosion has caused landslides, which have caused several casualties.
- The government and NGOs are introducing terracing and planting of trees and are working on improving the drainage systems to hopefully manage the environmental problems.
- As of March 2015, a report from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) shows that Rwanda is hosting more than 74,000 refugees since 1996. But by the end of that year, the numbers have increased to over 144,000 due to the sudden influx of Burundian refugees fleeing electoral violence in their country.
- Under the UNHCR guidelines, refugees in Rwanda have to register and acquire a refugee identity card so they can be granted refugee status and receive the full benefits (shelter, food and protection) as ‘stateless persons’ in need.
- Most refugees in Gihembe prefer to remain in the camp rather than return to their homes because of the unending conflict there and because they cannot reclaim their lands there.
- Congolese refugees make up 18% of the total refugee population in Africa and form the 6th largest refugee population in the world. There are approximately 160,000 Congolese refugees who are eligible for resettlement.
- UNHCR is targeting to resettle 50,000 refugees by 2017, with 80 percent of them destined for the United States.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.