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Rwanda: suspended lives, waiting for a durable solution for Congolese refugees
10 April 2012

After 17 years of life in camps, Congolese refugees in Rwanda hope for durable solutions. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
This small landlocked country is one of the most densely populated in the world, and it is desperately difficult for a refugee to find work or a portion of land to farm.
Kigali, 10 April 2012 – For 17 years, Congolese refugees in Rwanda have had no choice but to live in three immense, overcrowded camps. Of the 55,000 refugees, many have lived there since birth and know no other life. For some, the idea of a world outside seems as foreign as another planet.

The great majority fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the country disintegrated into conflict shortly after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Many share the same deep desire to return home to the valleys of North and South Kivu, but are sadly aware that the perennial conflict raging around their former villages makes this highly improbable.

In the interim, they find themselves living like prisoners, locked up and suspended in an eternal limbo with little space to build a future.

JRS has been working in two camps in Rwanda since 1996 – Kiziba in the east and Gihembe in the north – offering a range of education services at nursery, primary and secondary levels. Assistance is also provided to those in the most vulnerable circumstances: older persons, persons with disabilities, orphans, widows and single parents.

Speaking to staff on the ground in the two camps every morning, they will tell you they are committed to restoring in refugees the dignity they deserve, confidence in themselves and hope for the future.

Few possibilities. But what future is possible? Officially there are three ‘durable solutions': voluntary repatriation to their country of origin, integration into the host country with consequent granting of Rwandese nationality, and resettlement in a third country.

Although many refugees want to return home, a land rich in natural resources where earning a living might not be so difficult, they know it is a remote possibility. In the eastern DRC, particularly North and South Kivu, instability and insecurity reign due to the presence of numerous armed rebel groups. Refugees know this, and have resigned themselves to wait for better times.

The possibility of integrating into Rwandese society inspires even less hope, as it is not likely to become a concrete reality. This small landlocked country is one of the most densely populated in the world, and it is desperately difficult for a refugee to find work or a portion of land to farm.

In practice, none of the refugees in Kiziba or Gihembe will tell you that deep down they cherish hope of becoming a Rwandese citizen. They are well aware the difficulties involved would outnumber the advantages.

Resettlement in a third country, such as the US or Canada represents a wonderful dream for many refugees, who have given up the idea of going home and would prefer to live in a highly industrialised nation.

The resettlement quota for refugees in Rwanda in 2011 was 1,100. This year, UNHCR hopes that this figure will double. Although this solution may appear enticing and effective, it is still a privilege only for the rare few.

In the meantime, they will continue in camps, where they depend on humanitarian agencies for all their services, with little hope of employment in the formal economy, until one day someone makes a decision to end their limbo.


Danilo Giannese, Regional Communications and Advocacy Officer, JRS Great Lakes

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